When it came to pain, John Sheppard was of the opinion that whenever possible, you should grit your teeth and take it like a man. He was not, in general, a person who eagerly conveyed his emotions to others, and he wasn't likely to let even something like excruciating ouchiness make him open up.
He also had a bad habit of, secretly and silently, holding others to the same standards to which he held himself; yet as he trailed behind McKay, who was holding forth on an impressive list of physical complaints as an exceedingly tolerant Dr. Beckett led him to the infirmary, he found he was smiling to himself, just as secret and silent. Maybe it was the contrast to the utter quiet with which McKay had faced down the energy cloud—it was amusing to see him so bravely stoic then, and so wide-eyed and babble-mouthed now.
And, John had to admit, he was beginning to like McKay; how could you not feel at least a little bit friendly toward someone whose idea of a bonding exercise was to let you push him off a balcony and shoot him in the leg? That had been fun. It had been a while since John had genuinely enjoyed the company of another person.
They reached the infirmary, and McKay, apparently forgetting he had recently been complaining of a back ache, leapt up on one of the examination tables like it was a second home to him and switched over to bitching that his chest itched. Dr. Beckett rolled his eyes, and in doing so, seemed to notice John for the first time. "Major," he said, "can I help you with something?"
"Uh," said John, trying to figure out why exactly he was there, and whether there was some sort of post-averted-disaster procedure he was supposed to follow. The way things were going so far, he might have to come up with one. "I, uh. I have a question for McKay."
It was true, he realized; there was something he wanted to ask him. He looked at McKay, drumming his heels on the side of the table like a five-year-old impatiently awaiting his lollipop. But he was brilliant and not bad company, and apparently, he came through in a crisis. Yeah, John had something to ask him, all right.
"Rodney?" Beckett looked to McKay, apparently asking for patient permission to let John stay in the room. McKay waved his acceptance, looking distracted. He was scratching at his chest, where the now-depleted shield had been; John bet he wished it was still there.
"Do you think it's contact dermatitis?" McKay asked, presumably referring to the itching. "Or something in the mattresses? They're ten thousand years old; who knows what kind of mites or—"
"I'm much more concerned with whether or not you've been burned," Beckett said. "Take off your jacket." McKay did; Beckett inspected his arms and his neck. "The shirt, too," Beckett said, and John began to think that maybe he should wait outside. Over McKay's burble of protest: "I'll check for contact dermatitis, too."
John mumbled something about being out in the hall and started for the door. He was halfway there when McKay let out what could only be described as a shriek. "Carson—! I'm turning into a mouse!"
That made John spin on his heel. McKay was staring down at his chest, wide-eyed with horror, as Beckett made reassuring noises. "All right, I admit, this was unexpected, but hair growth is not an entirely uncommon side effect—and anyway they were white mice," he mumbled.
John was missing something. "What's the matter?"
McKay stared at him. "Just look at me! I've got...fur!"
In spite of himself, John looked more closely. McKay had very pale skin—if anything was startling, it was that—covered with a healthy amount of dark chest hair. It looked perfectly normal to him.
He raised an eyebrow, and directed it at Beckett, who blushed. "The gene therapy I devised appears to have put some hair on Rodney's chest. Er. As it were."
"A mouse!" McKay squeaked, not helping—well, somebody's case, anyway.
"Chest hair is manly," John said, consolingly. "Anyway, maybe it'll make up for the hair that's missing from your head."
That was mean, but John smiled while he said it, which tended to make people think he was laughing with them and not at them. McKay just sputtered, which John suspected would have been his reaction either way. Luckily, his focus soon switched to Beckett. "Well?" he demanded. "Aren't you going to do anything? Take blood? Run some tests? Sacrifice a chicken?"
Beckett sighed. "We'll be taking some blood, certainly. And I almost have the Ancient medical scanner figured out, so I can run you through that in the next couple of days." At McKay's indignant look, he continued. "This project matters to me, too, you know."
"Oh, I'm glad the project matters," McKay snapped, offering his arm up to Beckett's needle with, John was interested to note, nary a complaint or even a wince. "Why don't you round up some more test subjects, see if any of them grows a tail."
"Actually, I suppose I'd better refrain from giving the therapy to anyone else for the time being," Beckett said. He sighed again. "I already had a waiting list."
McKay scowled and pulled his shirt awkwardly over his head before jumping off the table. "Let me know if I should expect whiskers next!"
He fell into step beside John, shrugging on his jacket. "What?"
"You hungry?" John said. "I hear the mess is serving mac and cheese."
"Really?" said McKay, excitedly. Then his wide mouth twisted down into an expressive frown. "Oh, very clever."
John grinned. He considered for a moment, then gave McKay a casual thump on the back. "Seriously," he said, "let's get some grub. I have a proposal for you."
Rodney wasn't sure how it had happened, but somehow, in between laughing at his very serious medical concerns and plying him with the mess hall's already sadly decreasing supply of Jell-O, Major Sheppard had convinced him to join his off-world team.
It was a decision he was already beginning to regret. It wasn't like he didn't already have enough to worry about, what with large portions of the city flooded and mysterious hair growth and life-sucking aliens, for Christ's sake; no, now he had to worry about the fact that he was running through the woods on an alien planet with the aforementioned aliens shooting at him, and his pants were falling down.
He paused, panting, behind a tree, one hand tugging at his waistband and the other clutching a gun he still wasn't fully convinced wasn't so poorly designed it might go off in his hand. Lieutenant Ford looked over his shoulder, then snatched at Rodney's arm. "C'mon!"
"My pants are falling down." It wasn't a specific complaint; he wanted to convey the sheer aggravating ridiculousness of the fact that this sort of thing always happened to him. Sure, other people might get chased through the woods by space vampires, but only Rodney McKay would get sent to Siberia for making fun of someone's hair, or be allergic to a substance commonly put in dish soap and scented candles and little cheerful, deadly slices bobbing about in restaurant drinking water. Only Rodney McKay, who in his chosen field (and pretty much everything else) was an unmatched genius, would have to worry about mooning the pursuing aliens as he fled through the woods.
Ford didn't seem to get the deeper meaning. "I can't say your pants are really my highest priority right now, Doc!" And so Rodney stumbled after him, thinking himself the unluckiest person in the world.
Then he saw what had happened to Major Sheppard.
Later, after they'd defied death what seemed like a dozen times in the course of an afternoon—and was this becoming a habit? Oh, why had Carter smiled at him when she offered the Atlantis position?; later, Rodney found himself hanging around the infirmary after the others had gone. Sheppard wasn't paying attention to him anymore, having lured a pretty blonde nurse over to talk to him, but Rodney had plenty of other legitimate reasons to be there. For one thing, he wanted to talk to Carson—if blood tests were "inconclusive," then he had better get that full body scan, pronto! And also, and also...there was something that had been bothering him, niggling at the corners of his mind, ever since the jumper...
"Carson!" he snapped—fingers and mouth. "Are you going to get that finished any time soon, or am I going to die?" He waited. "Of old age?"
"Rodney." Carson was staring out a series of readouts on a monitor. "These things take time..."
"Hm? Well, maybe if someone who actually knew what he was doing saw to the machine—"
Carson folded his arms. "The scanner is working, I just need to figure out how to interpret the information it's provided."
"Well, let me see!"
Rodney made a grab for the monitor. "Hello?" Sheppard shouted from the adjacent room. "People who recently had a giant bug attached to their necks are trying to sleep?" Apparently he'd decided the nurse's presence was no longer required, Rodney noted, just as Carson said, "Do you know anything about medicine, Rodney?" Pointedly.
"Fine!" he huffed. "I'll be in my room; radio me when you can actually do something." He had to pause on his way out the door to hike up his pants.
Outside in the hall, the Czech scientist whose name he would now probably be able to remember, Simpson of the thousand-yard stare, and the lovely Dr. Dumais were hovering beside the door. "Ah, Rodney," said Zelenka-the-Czech, who was apparently perfectly comfortable with names—first and last—"Has Doctor Beckett cleared the gene therapy for others to try?"
Now, Rodney knew he had his faults, and that a lack of patience (for idiots) was most likely one of them. Yet the tight feeling blooming in his chest was nothing at all like the bouts of irritated frustration he suffered on a daily basis. His eyes narrowed. "Sure," he said, in a cold, calm voice he likewise didn't normally associate with bursts of annoyed anger, "go right ahead." He pushed into Zelenka's space and lifted up his shirt. "See how you like having a pelt." Then he shoved past them, feeling a flash of something like pleasure as he knocked Simpson's shoulder.
By the time he got back to his room, he was feeling more like himself. "Great," he muttered to himself, running a hand over his hair. "Nice going, McKay." Dumais was probably totally freaked out, and now she'd never—
Rodney stopped, pulling his hand away. A tiny tangle of brown strands rested in his palm. Rodney remembered how sick he'd felt a few years ago when his hairline had started to recede and occasional clumps of hair had come away with the comb. It was nothing compared to how he felt now.
He raced into the bathroom, the light coming on with an already instinctive thought. He stared at himself in the mirror, expecting to see a horrible spreading bald spot, or an outtake from The Fly, or something worse that he couldn't even imagine. Instead he looked fine. Normal. If anything, his hair looked thicker than before.
Darker, too. He blinked, leaned closer. Yes: darker, thicker... He brushed at it with his hands. More familiar brown strands fell out onto the sink, but what was left on his head remained positively robust. He turned his head from side to side. There was something...
He froze, the face in the mirror in profile. His ears—
It came to him all in a rush, a dizzying wave of knowledge. Sheppard—in the jumper— They'd had to cut open his shirt. And they'd all seen.
Rodney touched a hand to his chest and stared at the reflection of a face that looked more and more like a stranger.
John was actually trying to sleep—as opposed to faking it to avoid talking to that pushy nurse who wouldn't leave him alone—when McKay burst into the infirmary and shouted, "You!" John found himself startled into making the classic surprised/innocent Me? gesture, but McKay seemed to have already lost interest and switched to bellowing, "Carson!"
Beckett came out of his office looking harried. "This is a hospital. You don't shout in a bloody hospital!"
John refrained from pointing out that a bloody hospital was just the type where there'd be rather a lot of shouting. McKay had already wrested back control of the floor: "Did you use Major Sheppard's DNA?"
"What?" said Carson, at the same time John said, more sharply, "What?" and pushed himself up.
"In the gene therapy," said McKay, like he was talking to a very small child—one who had just backed the family minivan into the front porch, say. "Did you use Sheppard's DNA to get a sample of the ATA gene for when you oh-so-eagerly jammed a needle into my arm?"
"Major Sheppard seemed to respond the most strongly to ancient technology, so yes, I—and you both signed consent forms!" Beckett said quickly. "Rodney, you volunteered!"
"You said the side effects were probably limited to headaches and dry mouth!"
"Um," said John. He was sitting fully now, and possibly looking at the exit with something like longing. "What's going on?"
McKay looked between them both, wide- and wild-eyed. Then abruptly his gaze narrowed. He turned to face John's bed.
"I'm not turning into a mouse," he pronounced, with less relief than one would have supposed. "I'm turning into you."
John shivered. He knew it was ridiculous, just McKay being paranoid—being McKay—again. And yet, he said it with such conviction, with such a hollow, resigned look in his eyes. John recognized that look.
"Rodney." Beckett held out his hands: a placating gesture, palms up. "What you're talking about isn't possible—"
"It isn't?" McKay challenged. Beckett's jaw clicked shut.
"Look at me," McKay said, with a steady softness that seemed to surprise even him. "Look at my hair, look at my ears—"
John saw it now; he couldn't not see it. Like a reflection in a rippling pool: still not quite right, still fundamentally wrong, but getting closer and closer to reality all the time. John wasn't by any means an expert on McKay's features, but he had been—oh, not the past tense, not already—a memorable-looking man. And already his face looked like it was narrowing out, that wide, expressive mouth frowning as it lost space in which to exist. His eyes, too, seemed less impossibly wide, although it might have just been that anger had narrowed them. But the ears—asymmetrical, drawing up into elfin points—those were unmistakable. John had been teased on the playground too often to forget any curve, either apex.
"My clothes don't fit," McKay said quietly, and groped suddenly for a chair in which to sit down.
Beckett found one, looking pale. "I don't—I don't know how—"
"Well, figure it out!" McKay snapped. "Fix it!" Then the anger seemed to leave him and he slumped forward, his head in his hands.
John felt his own heart rate increasing, building toward a panic he calmed with deep breaths and clenched fists. "What exactly does this mean?" he asked, succeeding in making the question less of a sharp demand than McKay's, if not by much. "He's turning into me..." It made his stomach churn just to say it. "You mean he's going to look like me? He's going to look like me a little?"
"No, I'm going to look exactly like you." The words were muffled against the heels of McKay's hands. "My DNA's being replaced by yours. Isn't that right." He looked up. "Carson?"
"I—I need to run some tests— And Elizabeth—"
"Oh, God," McKay said, and sank in on himself again.
Beckett used the opportunity to bustle out of the room. Wait! John wanted to demand. How will this affect me? But he knew that was selfish, a bad impulse that like so many others, he had to rein in.
"You know," he said, making his tensed hands release the sheet they were clutching. "It's really not so bad, being me." He meant it as a joke—and one partially on him, though he didn't expect McKay to catch on to that. He also didn't expect the next panicked thought that entered his mind, or for it to escape unchecked. "Uh. You won't be able to read my mind, right? I mean, you won't get my memories...?"
McKay issued a snort and sat up straighter, like a healthy dose of disdain actually made him feel better. "Do you even know what DNA is?" he asked. Then his eyes widened again, and he looked almost like himself. "Oh no. You don't—you don't know anything! What's your IQ?"
When John didn't answer right away, McKay snorted again, though he sounded less pleased with this exhalation. "You don't even know," he said. "Well, I guess that answers that question. I'm screwed."
John, who knew damn well what his IQ was but had gotten into the habit of never sharing it, felt another stab of selfishness. Sure, McKay was acting like he was the only one who was going to be affected by this, but he wasn't the one who was going to have someone attaching himself to his identity like a leech, like that bug had affixed itself to John's neck earlier. He wasn't the one who had signed some random form along with a dozen others just to be allowed to go on this mission, and who was now being told that his DNA had been shared with someone else without his knowledge. John, in the best of circumstances, was not all that big on sharing.
"Beckett is going to be able to fix this," he said, with conviction he didn't feel. "I'm not going to let this happen."
McKay just laughed, a shallow, bitter sound. "It's out of our hands now," he said, holding his hand up to John's, the lines forming an identical pattern on each of their palms.
He stayed conscious the entire time. Rodney was secretly relieved. As much as he feared pain—which, for those who weren't paying attention, was a lot—there were other things he feared more. If his mind was going he wanted to feel it. He couldn't stand the thought of having all that he was slip away in the dark. He went back and forth on the issue several times, but in the end he decided that Gregor Samsa did not have the better deal.
"You won't lose what you know," Carson assured him. This was after he'd stopped promising to fix it in time, to make everything all right. "The way you process information might change, and your capacity to learn new—" He coughed. "Well, I'm not an neurologist. I'm not really sure what's going to happen."
"Yeah. I know," he said, and he would have said more if he hadn't suddenly realized he could make even those simple words cut like a knife.
Sheppard, Teyla, and Ford—his team for a day, ha—all had to proceed like everything was normal, going off-world without him because that was what the mission required: trading partners and hopefully, eventually, a new power source, even if Rodney wouldn't be around to find it. Instead, Rodney stayed in his room, scribbling notes to himself, things he wanted to promise himself he would never forget.
It actually didn't hurt that much. It made his body hot, sweaty and unable to bear the press of fabric, his mussed sheets. His muscles were sore—growing pains, he realized, like he hadn't felt in years. And it made him ravenously hungry, his cells needing energy that he was sure left him as quickly as he shoved food in his mouth. Sheppard really had a ridiculous body—hairy and skinny as a beanpole. His second toes were bigger than the first.
Elizabeth came by at intervals, to sit and talk with him. He didn't even need a mirror; he could see how far along he was in her face. He yelled at her to go away, but even then she came back.
At night he tried to keep himself awake, doing math problems in his head, trying to determine if part of what he had once taken for granted had been lost. Would he even be able to tell? That was possibly what scared him the most: the idea that he would wake up one morning, or tear his gaze away from his laptop one afternoon, and not realize that this wasn't the way it had always been. That he wouldn't even realize that he wasn't himself anymore, that he had changed.
He'd come to the Pegasus Galaxy to make a name for himself, to discover and do amazing new things that in a hundred years people would look back on and say, awed, "Rodney McKay did that." Instead the galaxy had wiped him out, rubbed his name—his face—from the books, in less time than it took the average redshirt to die in a typical episode of Star Trek. And when he went, there wouldn't even be a body to bury, not a single thing of him left behind.
John recognized that if you'd recently escaped a society built around ritualistic suicide where you yourself had nearly been dealt a messy death by crossbow, it shouldn't be the next part of your day that you were dreading. Still, he couldn't think of anything he less wanted to do than go check in on McKay.
He knew he had to. But man, did he ever resent the way it felt like a double duty. Sure, he owed a visit to a coworker/teammate/friend. But there was an implication in Elizabeth's eyes, in her almost-not-quite order, that McKay was now somehow his responsibility. That John had in some way done this to him.
Outside the door to McKay's quarters, John took a moment to collect himself. The last time he had seen him, briefly, before the mission to Planet Kid Kill, it hadn't been so bad: McKay hadn't looked like himself, but he hadn't looked like John, either. At best he resembled a distant cousin. One not so popular at family reunions.
It would be worse now, John knew. He had to prepare himself. Because apparently, he wasn't meant to be phased by this. Yeah, people genetically altered acquaintances of his to be exact doubles all the time!
On some level he still didn't believe it could happen. McKay would always be McKay, and he would always be himself. There wasn't going to be any muddled middle ground where he'd have to face the possibility of looking into his own eyes.
Or anyway, that's what he told himself as he rang the door chime and listened to a couple of muffled thumps from inside. He straightened his shoulders, drawing himself up to attention—an odd instinct, one that he had almost never felt.
The door opened. John forced his eyes to stay focused, ready for—but there was no one there. He heard some more thumping and realized that McKay must have opened the door remotely, and that he seemed to be in the closet. Throwing things, from the sound of it.
Then there was another sound, a voice. John's stomach lurched: it was not his voice, not the one he heard his head. Instead, it was something halfway between that and the horrible whining parody of the way he sounded when he listened to himself on answering machines and radio playbacks. "Don't mind me, Elizabeth! I would have tidied up, but I've been too busy trying to oversee by e-mail an entire department of overzealous idiots who don't seem to realize that in this galaxy, 'don't touch' really means—"
He stopped suddenly, pausing in the process of shooting an annoyed glance around the corner. John stopped, too. For a moment neither of them moved. Then McKay said, "Oh," and dropped the boot he was holding. John swallowed. They stared at each other.
It really was— It really was exactly as he had said. Exact. Identical. The face he had seen countless times in the mirror, shaving and fixing his hair and adjusting his uniform jacket. His face; and yet so clearly animated by some outside force. John had a ridiculous urge to make faces and see if this mirror-creature would mimic them; he wanted to walk around this foreign, familiar body and see it from all angles, like a cultured museum patron examining the statue of David. He— He wanted to touch him, cheeks and nose and mouth, just to see if he could possibly be real.
"Uh," he said, because he felt he ought to say something. "So."
"How do you even stay upright?" McKay blurted. "I've seen broader shoulders on a coat hanger!"
John laughed, surprising himself. "You get used to it. So, uh," he continued, almost instantly uncomfortable again. "How are you, uh. How are you feeling?"
McKay rolled his eyes, an expression John felt looked goofy and incongruous on his face (but then, he wasn't used to carrying on a conversation looking at his own features). "Not myself," he said, folding his arms. "Did you want something?" he added, pointedly.
"Um." John felt completely disarmed, which he hated. He suddenly wanted nothing more than to just escape—to back awkwardly out of the door like he'd accidentally got the wrong room. But he wasn't afraid of Rodney. He wasn't going to let himself be put off by this.
"Yeah," he said, coming forward. "I want to know that we're going to be able to continue to work together."
"Well, it's not like we have much of a choice, do we?" McKay's expression was smug and defiant; John could see, maybe, why so many of his superior officers had wanted to throttle him.
John took a breath; he wasn't going to force himself to be friendly, but he would force himself to be patient. "Rodney," he said, "I think we already have enough to deal with. You have your overzealous scientists. I have people below me doubting my command decisions. And we all have the Wraith breathing down our necks. So if we can possibly be allies in this..." He paused, considering, then went ahead and said it. "You have to know that I hate this as much as you do." McKay looked skeptical. "All right, almost."
John wasn't entirely sure if he had gotten through; his face was frustratingly hard to read. But McKay's posture relaxed a bit. "I need to borrow some clothes."
Great. More sharing, John thought. But he nodded. "Just...stick to your own underwear, all right?"
McKay opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. "I can get you a spare uniform," John continued. "It's not like we left without extras."
"I knew that," McKay snapped. "I just..."
He drooped. He looked, John thought, like he needed a hug—but twin or not, John wasn't going to give him one. "Come on," he said instead. "We should get people used to seeing us together." He nodded toward the door.
"Used to," McKay repeated dully.
"Yeah. There are lots of things you can get used to," John said, and felt the unexpected flicker of McKay's eyes shooting upward, looking deeper than John was entirely comfortable with.
McKay looked away first, though. He picked his watch up off the bedside table, spent a moment adjusting the strap, then squared his shoulders and pushed past John toward the door. Their eyes were completely level, John realized. Of course they were.
They were dark and weary, McKay's eyes, and John was suddenly faced with a bitter reminder of the playfulness he had first seen and liked in them, that wasn't there now. Bounding up to him in the hall, "Major! I want you to hit me as hard as you can!"
"Uh. I don't think I want to be a member of the Science Team's Fight Club, thanks anyway, McKay."
Eyeroll. "No, I found a personal shield! I need you to help me test it!"
"Yeah, it makes me invulnerable! I think."
John was just trying to provoke him when he said, "Can I shoot you?" But McKay's eyes had lit up like this was the most brilliant idea ever. And it was.
There was no fire in McKay's eyes now, just a quiet resignation. John opened his mouth. "Let's go," he said, at the same time McKay said "Let's go"—perfectly in stereo, and it was weird and wrong and John hated it. But not quite as much as he thought he was going to.
Oddly, he hated it the least when he was with Sheppard; when he was with the Major, he somehow felt the most like himself. He could look over and see Sheppard, frowning into the middle distance, and know him as a separate and distinct entity. He didn't have to worry about people running up behind him in the corridor, calling, "Major! Major!" only to be disappointed.
He tried combing his hair flat to his head, but it wouldn't stay down; Sheppard shot him looks that said, I told you. He cut it instead. He clung to his khaki uniforms and the blue t-shirts he "borrowed" off some of the other scientists. He suggested to Sheppard that they sew lettering across their backs spelling out their last names.
"Why not? It'll be like being on a sports team. You brought a football video as your personal item—you like sports!"
"It's different. It...it wouldn't be cool, Rodney. Ford, explain to McKay why in this particular context, back lettering isn't cool."
Ford hadn't been able to look him in the eye for weeks. "It's not cool," he mumbled.
"Well, I wouldn't want to mess with your image!" Rodney snipped. But he didn't sew the lettering on even his own jacket.
Mostly, he worked. On some elusive solution to his own problem and on everything else—he threw himself into it, harder than ever, vanquishing the fear that his capacities were diminished by refusing to acknowledge the possibility. That he was actually a little bored—going down to the labs in the morning, coming back up from the labs at night—that was a good sign, right? It meant he wasn't even being fully challenged by the work. Though it was challenging. It was also just—
He had liked it, hadn't he—his one mission, his brief experience being part of a unit, part of a team. Working together, coming through under pressure. Even the running-jumping-chased by monsters part had been...kind of exhilarating, really.
Or had it? Was that even really him, thinking those thoughts? Or was it Sheppard, Sheppard in him and all around him? He had always disagreed violently with Sam Carter in the past—field work was just a distraction, a way to risk your neck and reduce valuable lab time. So what did it mean that he looked longingly after Zelenka every time he left the labs to follow Sheppard and the others through the gate? Was he just jealous because that had so briefly been him, or were even his emotions no longer his own? How much had he really changed?
These were all the things that Rodney was resolutely not thinking about when Radek stomped into the lab one evening, shouting, "That is it! I quit!"
Rodney ceased poking desultorily at a powerbar (it was weird almost never being hungry—being able to go for hours without feeling it) and dismissed this announcement with a wave of his hand. "You can't quit. What part of 'one-way mission' didn't you get?"
"No, I quit going off world! No more! Lock me in bunkers—posrany darebáci!"
Rodney turned back to his laptop. "So tell Sheppard, and I'll pick somebody else to go. Gall or Simpson or somebody." Across the room, Rodney just barely caught Simpson mouthing No way.
But Radek persisted. "You think I haven't tried? Five times I have told him!" By Rodney's calculations, that would mean about once after every mission. "And he nods and smiles at me, and says yes, we will discuss it, and then next thing you know, there I am in uniform again. The Major," he declared, "is a sneaky, sneaky man!"
Rodney was fighting a losing battle, pretending to be annoyed when he was actually quite bemused. "What do you want me to do about it?"
"Talk to him! He will listen to you. Tell him you—you need me for some important project, I am too valuable to you to go off world. And then yes, suggest Gall as my replacement—he is dying to go, he pesters me non-stop. He should have gone from the beginning, I do not know why you suggested me."
From the look on Radek's face, it appeared he suspected Rodney had put forward his name due to some kind of grudge; in fact, it was simply because Rodney had though Zelenka would be the best for the job. He wasn't about to tell him that, however.
"Fine," he said, rolling his eyes. "I'll talk to him at dinner."
Rodney didn't eat in the mess every night—the cafeteria-style atmosphere reminded him unpleasantly of high school, and he kept having bizarre reactions to the food that he preferred not to experience in public. He was continually discovering that nothing tasted quite right—and while in part that was because most of their foodstuffs were freeze-dried or alien (and in a few cases, freeze-dried and alien), there was no reason reconstituted eggs shouldn't taste like reconstituted eggs. But Sheppard's tongue apparently appreciated different flavors, and since Sheppard's tongue was currently in his mouth...
Possibly his attempts to explain this phenomenon over dinner last week was part of the reason he kept getting shifty-eyed looks as he made his way to his table.
Sheppard was sitting with Teyla and Ford over in one corner. Rodney paused a few feet away, suddenly feeling like he was intruding. But that was ridiculous; he marched smartly the rest of the way over and slapped his tray down sharply in front of Sheppard.
The Major looked up. His face remained studiously blank, but Rodney saw it: saw an actual shudder pass through his body, quick but there. Rodney's stomach flipped unpleasantly—there went his strangely elusive appetite again. He half expected to see Sheppard push his tray away, too—repulsed.
Ford was also giving Rodney a look like he was afraid Rodney might ooze out of his chair and glomp on to Ford's arm. Only Teyla offered him a smile, but she gave that little diplomatic grin and nod to everybody. How could he have thought that he might actually have had a relationship with these people?
Well, never mind; he put it out of his head. He had business to attend to, anyway—this was business. "Major," he said, "I'd appreciate it if you'd stop traumatizing my scientists."
Sheppard lifted an eyebrow; Rodney lifted an eyebrow right back. Ford started choking on a piece of broccoli. "What have I supposedly done?" Sheppard asked.
"Zelenka said he got locked in a bunker."
"Well, to be fair," said Sheppard, playing with his fork, "I got locked in the bunker, too."
"Oh, I'm sure he found that very reassuring. Anyway, he wants off the team, which is good, because I need him for...stuff. Important scientific stuff. Why don't you start taking Gall?"
"McKay, I can't keep training replacement science personnel for my team! We're supposed to be increasing the number of off-world teams, remember? Not giving everyone one free ride on Team Sheppard."
The way Sheppard was looking at him annoyed him. "Hey, I didn't ask to leave. That decision was kind of made, oh, entirely without me."
"McKay." Sheppard leaned back. Rodney hated the way he was slumped in his chair—like he wasn't taking this seriously. Well, see how he liked it. He let go of the table (huh, he hadn't actually realized he'd been gripping it like that) and draped an arm casually over his chair back. He shot Sheppard a defiant look.
"I'm sure you would have been a great part of the team eventually, but you have to understand it's impossible now."
"I didn't mean—"
"Oh, whatever." This posture really did seem to make it easier not to care. "This isn't about me, anyway"—and whoa, there was an argument he couldn't remember having used in a while. Or possibly ever. "But I am the one who has to sign off on all science department assignments, and I'm not going to make Radek keep going out there if he's miserable, not unless it's somehow vital to our survival. Which, considering that Brendan is perfectly competent," and I do still exist, you know, he thought but somehow refrained from saying, "it's not."
He stood, grabbing the sandwich off his plate and taking a large bite. "I'll tell Gall to report to the firing range tomorrow at 0700," he said around a mouthful of turkey. Then he stalked off again, feeling bizarrely satisfied.
He felt slightly less so when Gall's gratitude made him even more annoyingly obsequious (it was so obvious that he was only greasing the ladder's rungs in hopes that Rodney would fall off); Rodney had found Radek's simple "Thank you" and prompt return to work to be highly preferable. Honestly, as much as Rodney loved being in charge (and he really, really did) and as much as he knew he was a good leader (he totally was!), some of the day-to-day business of running a department was really trying. Maybe he needed a hobby.
Yes, that was it. A hobby. And, even better—hadn't Dumais been talking about starting an Atlantis MENSA chapter? A fun bit of extra-vocational intellectual activity between like-minded peers...plus, an excuse to spend time with Dumais in her off-hours. It was a perfect plan! Which became slightly less perfect when, halfway through telling Dumais that he loved her idea and that they should work to implement it right away, he remembered that he had recently flashed her. No wonder she seemed kind of twitchy around him.
"Uh," he said, "I've been meaning to—a couple weeks ago, outside the infirmary? I want to apologize for that."
"What? Oh, no, it's nothing." She was blushing, but only a little. "You were going though a lot."
"Sheppard's very hormonal," Rodney confided, nodding vigorously in acceptance of this excuse.
"Oh, how are you handling it, by the way? If you don't mind my asking."
Normally Rodney minded very much—he was sick of the concerned questions, the looks of pity and gentle understanding from Elizabeth and Heightmeyer and everyone else who shuddered slightly when they thought he had turned away. But Dumais phrased her query not with forced sympathy but with scientific curiosity. She wanted to understand. She found him interesting. Rodney could work with that. He could definitely work with that.
"Would you like to come have dinner with me?" he asked impulsively, nodding toward the door. "We could talk about it."
She laughed, somewhat nervously. "It's 11:30 in the morning."
"Oh. Lunch then." Her expression changed, but he couldn't quite divine the meaning of the alteration. "Or dinner. Both. Whatever you want. A snack?"
"Lunch is good to start," she said after what, in Rodney's mind, felt like a painfully long pause. But she smiled, and he knew that was good.
They went to the mess, where Rodney walked deliberately past Team Sheppard's table. He sat with his back to them and chatted amiably with Dumais ("Please, call me Martine") about a dozen different topics—barely touching on his altered state, in fact. They agreed to meet again for dinner later.
Later, Sheppard discovered a freakish superstorm heading toward the city, and suddenly everyone was looking to Rodney again.
It wasn't that John liked arguing with McKay; quite the opposite, really. But it was becoming harder and harder not to. It seemed suddenly that he was always around, a persistent shadow—lurking around every corner, turning Atlantis into a house of mirrors. It gave John the creeps. It gave him the creeps, and while he knew it wasn't Rodney's fault, not really, it honestly did seem like the scientist was taking a bad situation and aggravating it. Suggesting they sew their names on their backs—why not label themselves the freaks of Atlantis while they were at it? It was fucking ridiculous.
Then there were the problems he was having with his team. Teyla was fantastic—in spite of what Sergeant 'Another Headache' Bates said, making her acquaintance was the best thing that had happened in this galaxy so far. Ford was a good kid, too, if a bit over-enthusiastic when it came to things that went boom. And John even liked Doctor Zelenka, who was clearly smart, and very funny—if not always intentionally. But man, was he really not with the spirit of the endeavor. Going off-world clearly made him extremely uncomfortable; he'd sulked through his training, and still sighed dramatically every time they got geared up. It was really hard to promote team spirit when one fourth of said team so clearly did not want to be there.
It had crossed John's mind, briefly and uncharitably, that McKay had picked Zelenka as his replacement out of spite; he'd dismissed this when he saw how skilled (if still an unhappy off-world camper) Zelenka was. The feeling came back full force, however, when McKay sided with Zelenka (whom John had thought was finally starting to adjust, to bond with the rest of them) before—insult to injury—dumping Gall on him. That had to be a spiteful move—saddling him with Gall, who had twelve times Zelenka's enthusiasm but none of his charm; who had a good share of Rodney's skill but wasn't—
Well. Wasn't the person John had picked for his team, who John had known almost immediately would be the perfect fourth, the necessary counterweight, the teammate he wanted. John was sure Gall was a great scientist, but John couldn't picture him doing what Rodney had done with the energy cloud, the thing that had made it clear at the time that Rodney was just the sort of person John would want at his side.
And now here he was, hovering hovering hovering, and it wasn't what John had wanted at all.
Well, tough. John should have known by now: you rarely got what you wanted. You still had to do the job, though, John thought, jogging out to the grounding station to which McKay had smirkingly sent him. It was naive to think that, even in a galaxy far, far away, one's life could really change that much.
It was petty, but Rodney had to admit he got some sadistic pleasure out of making Sheppard run all around the city. It was probably part of the reason that, in spite of the looming disaster, he was in a surprisingly good mood. After all, he had come up with a brilliant plan to solve things—he could still come up with brilliant plans! Elizabeth was chatting with him like things were normal, like he himself was. And he had—for perfectly legitimate reasons—made Sheppard sweat.
Not a bad day, really, for hurricane season.
Then suddenly he had a gun in his face.
"What the hell is going on?" Elizabeth demanded. Rodney couldn't have said it better himself—really couldn't, because when the first wave of fear hit him, it had apparently caused his heart to leap into his throat and lodge there. He and Elizabeth were pushed forward. Rodney looked up to see they were being approached by an intimidating man with a scarred face and a uniform that suggested the wearer was trying way, way too hard. Rodney had read the reports: Genii, he thought. The ones who had locked Radek in the underground bunker. Oh, no.
"Doctor Elizabeth Weir," said their captor. His calm, confident voice was not at all reassuring.
"Yes." Her posture was cautiously defiant. Rodney hoped he was projecting something similar, and not the gonna-piss-myself fear he was actually experiencing.
The man's eyes swiveled to him, cold and black. Rodney called up a mental image of Sheppard's own icy glare and tried to shoot it back. Apparently, he did slightly too good a job, because the man's mouth turned up into a knife-like grin as he said, "And you must be Major Sheppard."
Rodney heard Elizabeth suck in a breath, but before he could say anything himself, a little slip of a woman, bizarre-looking in her matching, severe military garb, came up beside the first man and confirmed what she thought she saw. "That is him."
"Good." Then the man raised his gun and shot him.
Rodney didn't initially register what had happened as such. It was so fast: slight movement, then pain exploding just below his shoulder. He fell back against the console, left hand groping for the injured right arm, trying to fight through the shock. You have the wrong man! he thought wildly. But he didn't say anything.
He felt Elizabeth move to his side. "What do you think you accomplished by that?" she snapped. "Do you think that's going to make us more likely to do what you want?"
The man smiled. That smile made something seize up in Rodney's chest—even through the pain, even through the startled tears he was swiftly blinking away. Fury—burning fury like he had never felt, that incinerated all the annoyances he was used to feeling to nothing. He knew exactly what he wanted to do to that smile.
"Oh, I do," the man said. He nodded to two of his men, who ripped Rodney and Elizabeth's radios from their ears, then jerked each of their hands roughly behind their backs. Pain erupted in Rodney's shoulder and Rodney bloodied his lip to keep from crying out. "I think I've made it very clear, Doctor Weir, Major Sheppard. As of right now, we are in control of Atlantis."
It was very clear to Rodney, too. Whoever this Genii son of a bitch was, Rodney was going to make him pay.
John froze when he heard the gunshot. Dammit. Goddammit! That better not mean what he thought it meant. Why hadn't Rodney said anything? He could have explained that he was John's...twin brother, he could have found a way to make it plausible—once he opened his mouth it was pretty clear he was a different person. But he hadn't said anything. If he'd just died in John's place...
But no. John couldn't afford to think like that. He dithered for a second longer—should he secure the last grounding station now? No, time was of the essence. He took off for the jumper bay. He could call in Ford and Teyla, and they could take these Genii sons of bitches down.
But Ford and Teyla couldn't come; the storm was gearing up outside, and John was on his own. All right. Okay. He could do this. He'd seen Die Hard like eighteen times. He just needed a little more information...
The city-wide speakers suddenly crackled to life. "Look," said a doubly familiar voice. John's heart leapt—he'd never been so happy to hear those tones and know they were McKay. "You need the C4, the medical supplies, and the Wraith data device." His breathing sounded labored; John's mind raced. "We'll give them to you. None of that's worth dying over."
Okay, clever. McKay was clever—had to give him that. John took off again; he'd secure the the C4 first...
"You seem to value your life quite highly for a soldier," said that cooly competent voice John had already mentally labeled as 'Evil Alien Overlord.'
"Well, in our military we prefer not to expose—" Rodney's voice cut out suddenly, like he'd accidentally let go of the button. Of course he must have been activating it secretly, out of sight. Shit, if he'd been caught—
"—adiation." John sucked in another relieved breath as Rodney suddenly began speaking again. Maybe his position was just awkward—if he'd been wounded, maybe he genuinely needed the console for support and was just taking advantage...
"Anyway, I'm a pilot," Rodney continued. He sounded as if he were reminding himself, attempting to stay in character. John would appreciate that, normally, but really Rodney should know that you never, ever volunteered any sort of information, no matter how small.
"Of course, how could I forget?" John paused in packing up the C4—that did not sound good. "You had that marvelous spacecraft you were showing off, didn't you?"
"Sure, you can help yourself to one of those, too." No, no, no—he was doing it wrong. McKay was clever, but he had no grasp of military strategy. You couldn't reason or try to compromise with a man like this—you had to show him who was boss, right from the beginning. "The only trouble is," McKay continued. John could hear, soft in the background, Elizabeth start to say, "Ro—" and then cut herself off. "—You won't be able to fly—"
The transmission cut out, this time with what sounded like a violent scraping sound, like something had been pulled across the speaker. Then silence.
John stood in the armory with a half-full case of C4 in his hands. He thought, Oh, fuck.
Rodney thought he had known pain, but that was before Kolya shot him, before he wrapped his big, ugly hand around the bullet wound and squeezed. "You're sure there's no one else left in the city?" Kolya demanded.
If he gave Sheppard up it wouldn't make the pain stop quicker, Rodney reasoned—as much as he could reason, lightning-hot agony shooting up his side. It would only make things worse for all of them, to have this pathetic joke of a ruse discovered. And besides he couldn't, he wouldn't give Kolya the satisfaction.
"No!" he snapped. "Don't you think I would have called for backup if there were?"
The lie somehow sounded a lot more convincing in Sheppard's voice than deception ever had for him. Kolya thought he was Sheppard. He had to think like Sheppard. What would Sheppard do?
Probably cooperate and wait for just the right moment to turn the tables. Rodney felt the throbbing pain in his arm (they'd let Elizabeth tie off the wound so he wouldn't immediately bleed to death, but who knew what kinds of hideous infections he'd get—he'd been shot for Christ's sake!); he looked at the guns pointed at Elizabeth's head and at his own. He wondered if he'd ever get that opportunity.
"We've agreed to give you what you've asked for," Elizabeth repeated. "This is entirely unnecessary. Let him go."
Kolya gave Rodney's wound another squeeze. "Do you often take orders from civilians?" he asked, contemptuously.
Rodney glared. "When they're right."
Kolya smirked, but he loosened his grip, moving his hand down lower so he was holding Rodney's elbow instead. "Ladon," he said, "take your people and allow Doctor Weir to escort you to the armory. I'm going to let Major Sheppard fetch me the Wraith device, then show me one of these ships," another blade-like grin, "that only he can fly."
Okay, that sounded bad. Yet another drop of bad in this whole sea of bad. Rodney risked a quick look at Elizabeth as she was led from the room; her jaw was set, her face grim. Where the hell was Sheppard? He was everywhere you looked when you didn't want to be reminded, but now...
Kolya gave him a shove. "Sora, you stay here and guard the gate," he instructed as several more Genii fell in to march Rodney out of the room.
"You'll follow orders."
One of the Genii pushed the tip of his gun into Rodney's back (which he was now very glad did not say 'MCKAY' across it). He got the idea. He was supposed to follow orders, too.
From what Rodney had heard, Sheppard had never been very good at that. In general, Rodney had no desire to emulate the man more than he already forcibly had. In this case, however, he was willing to make an exception.
John saw the figures approaching on his lifesigns detector. It wasn't safe to just open fire, not when he hadn't ascertained the locations of the hostages. He hid and watched them pass. It was a good call: they had Elizabeth, four of them, leading her along, the hand on her arm insistent but not too rough. She looked unhurt, which was good—which made John almost shaky with relief, actually. He watched them go into the armory, thinking again of the echoing sound of that gunshot. Maybe it had been just a warning, after all.
Somehow John didn't think so.
No. Don't dwell. Concentrate. If he could get Elizabeth clear, he could take them. He definitely had the element of surprise—first, because they thought no one else was here, and then, even after they saw him. Presumably they'd just come from wherever McKay was, and even the surely infamous Major Sheppard, who'd so suavely defeated them on their own homeworld, could not be in two places at once.
Ha. Now he could. And actually...
He took off his jacket and vest to make it slightly less obvious that he wasn't wearing the same uniform (that science beige was really ugly anyway—they should just scrap it), then stumbled into the armory, effecting what he hoped sounded like a good imitation of Rodney-like indignation. "Hey! I said I'd help, no need to push!"
He kept his eyes up. He'd been right based on the position of the dots on the lifesigns detector: the Genii had fanned out to gather their booty, leaving only one guard covering Elizabeth, and he had looked up to see Major Sheppard get shoved around. Before any of them could realize that there was no one there to do the shoving, John had taken two of them down. Elizabeth wisely dropped, leaving John clear to disarm the third after a shot whizzed far too close for comfort past John's side—if he'd still been wearing his jacket, the bullet probably would have perforated it. He spun on the fourth Genii, who for some reason had gone for his radio instead of his gun. "Commander, the pris—" he started.
John advanced with his gun out, his eyes making it plain that he would shoot to kill if necessary. The man hesitated.
There was a crackle. "What?" came the commander's voice.
"Ask nicely," John hissed, "If he'd like you to fetch the medical supplies, too."
The Genii relayed the question.
"Leave the C4 with Sora's team first."
John barely let him acknowledge before wresting the radio from the man's hands. "You seem to value your life quite highly for a soldier," John said with a smirk. The man didn't respond.
"Elizabeth, are you all right?" John called.
"Yes." From the corner of his eye he saw her get to her feet. "It's good to see you."
John saw a little flicker in the Genii prisoner's eyes; he was probably still trying to figure out how his commander's prisoner had gotten away without the commander being aware of it. Well, it didn't really matter if he figured it out now. What did matter, however—
"Is McKay okay?" he asked Elizabeth. He checked the Genii for weapons, discovered that the man had made the mistake of setting his gun down on the table, presumably in preparation for helping himself to the C4. Rolling his eyes, he pocketed the gun and maneuvered the Genii around toward the door, checking discreetly to make sure that the three that were down would stay down. With the way that he'd aimed, it was likely they would.
He saw Elizabeth shake her head. "Commander Kolya shot him, then took him with him. He wants Rodney to show him how to fly the jumpers."
Fuck. McKay had to spill the beans about the jumpers being ATA-locked. John took a deep breath. He hadn't spilled the beans about John, though. That was the important thing.
"Okay," he said, leading the captured Genii forward at the point of his gun, "let's go pay a visit to your pal Sora, and on the way, you can tell me all about this Commander Kolya of yours." He nodded at Elizabeth, who followed them.
The Genii started forward cooperatively, raising an eyebrow in something almost akin to humor. "You're the evil twin, aren't you?"
"Yeah," said John. "I'm the evil twin."
Rodney was disappointed. An opportune moment—he was still hoping against hope that he'd be able to recognize one—had not arisen when Kolya and his evil henchmen had marched him off to fetch the Wraith device, and had yet to arise in the course of one of the henchmen pushing him up the jumper ramp. "Yes, see, it's a very nice spaceship," he said, trying not to stumble, "a gateship, actually, as I wanted to call it, since it goes through the gate." Kolya pushed past him, apparently to check the size of the overhead compartments and the number of cup holders. "But as I've been saying, I'm afraid it's as useless to you as a Winnebago up on cinderblocks—you need what we call the ATA gene to fly it, and I'd be very much surprised—"
Kolya sat down in the pilot's chair. The console entirely failed to light up.
"—Yes, so you see, I'm not trying to be difficult or anything," he shot a glare at the guard who kept poking him with his gun—as if Rodney were actually trying something, as opposed to just thinking very hard about how he might go about trying something. "But, surely you see the logic of what I'm saying." He tried a grin on Kolya, one that when employed by Sheppard looked like it could charm the panties off a nun.
Kolya did not seem quite so susceptible (which, on second thought, was perhaps a good thing). "But you can fly it."
Well, presumably if he tried, there was no real reason why he shouldn't be able to— But oh, right, he was Sheppard. He of the ostentatious Aviator sunglasses. "Of course!"
Kolya swiveled around in his chair, leaning back. "You know, Major Sheppard," he said, "you seem to me like a man who's gone about as far as he can with his current career." A sneer. "You certainly don't seem very good at it."
"Hey!" He was sure he made a better Fake Air Force Major than a lot of other people.
"In fact," Kolya continued, ignoring his outburst, "I think a change of occupation would do you good."
Rodney didn't like the sound of that. His heart began to pound, his arm throbbing.
"Which is why, as soon as we're through here, you'll be coming with us." Kolya smiled. "I'm sure you'll find being my personal pilot very rewarding."
"Oh, you've got to be—" Forget opportune; Rodney was ready to punch the smug bastard in the face right now. The guards, unfortunately, restrained him before he could move half a step. Kolya laughed.
"I heard you were so fearsome when you faced us before." The look on his face was almost pitying. "I guess anyone can appear fearsome when they have hired goons to stand around them with guns."
Oh, like you should talk, Rodney thought. He forced himself to take a deep breath. This wasn't over. He could still think of something. Anyone as cocky as Kolya was bound to screw up.
The commander's face displayed nothing but total confidence, however, as he thumbed his radio on. "Sora," he said, "has Ladon delivered the C4 yet?"
The radio crackled. "Sorry, Sora's busy," said a familiar voice. Rodney's heart leapt. "I wouldn't have the honor of speaking to the illustrious and renowned Commander Acastus Kolya, would I?"
Kolya's posture changed instantly. "Who is this?"
"The person who's once again in command of Atlantis, who's killed or captured all your men, and who might be generous enough to let you live if you let Major Sheppard go and surrender immediately."
Kolya turned his back on Rodney, though Rodney could see the way his shoulders tightened. "You killed my men?"
The false warmth was gone from Sheppard's voice. "You killed mine first."
There was a pause. Then Kolya's back straightened again. "Yes, but I still have your Major Sheppard, your military leader. And I am beginning to wonder who is really in charge here, and," he turned to Rodney and smiled, "just exactly what that means in terms of what his life is worth."
Another slight pause. Then, "Don't threaten me, Kolya. My generosity is limited, and without it, you're never getting out of here alive."
Kolya moved swiftly, grabbing Rodney by his uninjured arm and shoving him into the pilot's seat. "You've forgotten that I have a jumper. And," he pressed his gun to Rodney's temple, "a jumper pilot."
"Kolya!" Sheppard bellowed. "I have reinforcements coming to the jumper bay right now, and if you move, I'll authorize them to take you out!"
"I don't believe you." Kolya's face was distressingly calm again. "Besides, you can't take us out without killing your Major Sheppard." A slow smile. "Or is this a coup? Maybe you won't actually miss him once he's gone."
Sheppard started to say something else but Kolya casually flicked the radio off and tossed it aside. "Fly," he hissed in Rodney's ear.
Rodney swallowed. "No."
He could feel the end of the gun, digging cold into his skin. "If you don't fly, I'll splatter your brains all over that glass, and what use will your heroism be then? Now take us through the gate."
Rodney sucked in a breath. He could feel the jumper controls under his hands, the entire system poised to respond to his mind's slightest whim—just like he always thought the universe ought to do. What a joke. Kolya's gun still smelled like spent powder.
The jumper initiated, grew bright under his touch. So here it was, the thing he had sold himself for: his body, his name, his life.
Kolya punched in an address and the floor dropped away, Rodney following the flight sequence he knew from going over jumper diagnostics but not from any practical experience. Now would certainly be a good time for any innate characteristics of Sheppard to manifest. Though it would serve Kolya right if Rodney crashed the jumper into the side of the gate and killed them all.
He had a thought then: passing, strange. He filed it away as he faced the event horizon, flickering blue. He wondered if Sheppard was above him, if he was standing there in the control room, helplessly watching; and if there was even a spark of truth to what Kolya had said: that when he was gone Sheppard wouldn't miss him, that he'd be secretly relieved.
Ford and Teyla arrived just minutes too late, of course, when there was little else to do besides make sure the prisoners were safely secured. John barely cared; he was already buckling his vest. "They took McKay," he told his teammates, and didn't have to say anything more. "Think they went back to the Genii homeworld?" asked Ford.
"I don't know, they dialed out from one of the jumpers." He could feel his face contort into something too close to a snarl. "Which they also took." He forced a breath through. "Elizabeth."
When she didn't respond right away, he turned. She'd been leaning against one of the consoles and still was, though now she had turned and was staring at the metal fixture beside her hand. It was spotted rusty red.
"Elizabeth," he said again, more firmly, "do you know how to find out the last address the gate dialed?"
She shook her head. "No. Rodney would—"
He bit his lip. "Yeah." Okay. "Well, what about Zelenka? Can we reach him?"
Ford nodded. "At least you got the city squared away, and we can call everybody back."
John and Elizabeth locked eyes at the same time. "The fourth grounding station...?" she asked, without much hope.
"Oh, fuck," said John.
He took off running.
The jumper was thankfully fairly intuitive—or maybe piloting skill was a genetic trait. They'd come out of the wormhole low over a field of flowers which Rodney had skimmed before being instructed by Kolya to take them up over the approaching tree line. Rodney almost put his plan into action right then; but no, it was too risky for several reasons—not opportune, not yet.
"I am very disappointed," Kolya was saying—to Rodney or to his men, Rodney wasn't quite sure, though he very much hoped it was the latter. "Very, very disappointed."
He didn't immediately elaborate—maybe he was just pissed at the universe in general? That would explain a lot. He was still standing, hovering over Rodney's shoulder, making sure Rodney never ceased to be very aware of his gun. Rodney was going to have to shake him off, if even just a little, for his plan to work. He ran though his mental catalogue of the jumper's systems, thinking frantically. They weren't in space so turning off the artificial gravity wouldn't do any good. But what about the inertial dampeners? Rodney had once seen some idiot who apparently didn't understand the meaning of the 'fasten seatbelt' sign get thrown against the overhead compartments during a turbulent flight. And Rodney was flying. He could always manufacture a little turbulence...
Up ahead, the trees parted dramatically to reveal the shimmering blue waters of a fairly extensive lake. Rodney felt a rush of adrenaline: this was it. Oh god. He was about to risk his life. He was possibly going to get himself killed.
Kolya would pay.
Quickly, before he could dwell on it any further, he thought Off! at the inertial dampeners and took the jumper into a dive.
"What are you—" Kolya started, before being thrown forward against the console at Rodney's side. The gun flew out of his hand, striking Rodney across the temple. Blood stung his eyes but he barely noticed. Kolya was reaching for him, the water rushing toward them faster and faster. But things still weren't positioned quite to his liking. Rodney jerked out of the dive, into a sharp climb, and got a satisfied glimpse of Kolya tumbling back into the rear compartment to join the other two Genii who were already bouncing around back there like overzealous electrons. Rodney quickly turned and slammed shut the bulkhead doors. His stomach was rolling, the pleasure of trapping Kolya and the other Genii in the rear compartment not something he could celebrate with the appropriate amount of zing. He felt light headed, and leaning on the controls for support wasn't working nearly as well as he'd hoped it would—possibly he hadn't been physiologically ready for some of the maneuvers he'd just pulled, since he wasn't actually a pilot who'd long ago scrambled his brains. Also, there was all this red stuff dripping into his eyes. Oh! And pretty blue water coming closer and closer. That would be helpful. Then he could wash the blood away...
He never actually remembered hitting the water, only waking, later, to find it all around him. He thought, Oh, they're submersible. Neat. Then his head cleared—at least as much as it was going to—and he realized he was in trouble.
He could hear a muffled banging from the rear compartment—he'd locked the doors, hadn't he? Yes, but who knew how well the equipment would be working after the crash. More importantly, who knew how the hell he was going to get out of here?
He did—or he must have, prior to being struck upon the head and exposed to whiplash and god only knew how many gees of acceleration—just the kind of thing he knew left Air Force people mentally addled. But he had to have had a plan—even if he was becoming increasingly unsure it had involved actually crashing the jumper. He looked out the windshield, which thank god seemed to be holding, and saw that they had landed at the bottom of the lake, pushed deep into some sandy surface that had lifted up then resettled around them. He turned his head and looked in the other direction—was he hallucinating, or was that light he saw? If he held his breath—
No, no "ifs"—what other choice did he have? He looked around—sadly, there didn't seem to be any convenient "In case of emergency, break glass" panel. Then he saw it. Kolya's gun, that magical weapon that had managed to draw blood from him not once but twice. Well, it owed him, then; maybe now it would pay him back by saving his life.
He moved back as far from the windshield as he could, doing some quick calculations of angles. Assured that he was, under the circumstances, in the best position he was likely to find himself, he raised the gun.
Then he held his breath and started firing.
John wanted to scream. To get to Rodney, they needed Radek, but by getting Radek, they'd dialed the gate, and by dialing the gate they had, apparently, made it about twenty times harder for Radek to retrieve the address dialed by the stolen jumper. Compared to this, saving the city from a hurricane was beginning to seem simple and straightforward.
"You know, time is sort of a factor here!" he snapped.
"Of this I am aware, thank you!" Zelenka ducked under the console again. "I would be able to work faster if you would stop hovering over me, screaming in my—"
The offworld activation klaxon sounded, apparently right in Zelenka's ear. He swore loudly in Czech. "Is that more personnel?" John asked. "I thought everyone was back?"
"If you wait, I am checking!" He bent over the console briefly, then straightened up, surprised. "It is Doctor McKay's IDC."
John felt a surge of hope...which he quickly battened down. It was almost certainly a trick; did they really think it would work twice? "Teyla, Ford," he called, "come with me." He turned to Zelenka. "When we're in position, drop the shield. If you see anyone who isn't McKay come through the gate, put it back up immediately."
Radek nodded mutely. John drew his side arm and went with Ford and Teyla down the stairs. "Okay, Radek!" The shield shimmered and died. John readied his weapon.
The man who came through was soaking wet and bleeding from the forehead and upper arm. He also had John's face. Yet clearly he was Rodney—John would recognize him anywhere.
He looked around at them, blearily. "Thanks for coming to rescue me," he said. He probably meant it to come out sarcastically, or as an indictment, but mostly he just sounded tired. He sneezed, soundly.
Beckett came rushing down from the control room and helped Rodney up the stairs and over to a chair. "I was shot," Rodney announced loudly. "And I got hit in the head, and I crashed the jumper."
"You crashed the jumper?" John realized belatedly that that sounded rather too much like he was exclaiming, You hurt my baby?—and that he cared more about the ship than he did about Rodney.
"I trapped Kolya and the others in the back and then flew it into a lake," Rodney explained. His brow furrowed. "That last bit may or may not have been on purpose. Also," he sniffed, "there was some bad pollen."
"I think he has a concussion," said Beckett, somewhat needlessly. He helped Rodney to rise again. "We need to get him to the infirmary."
John moved to help. "So, wait," he said, guiding Rodney with a hand on his arm, allowing Beckett to take the injured and thus more fragile side, "you trapped Kolya in the back of the jumper."
"Yes," said Rodney, managing peevish a little better this time. "I told you."
"And that jumper is currently at the bottom of a lake."
"That's what I said."
John burst out laughing.
"That," he said, ignoring Rodney and Carson's puzzled looks, "is by far the most wonderful thing I've ever heard."
Rodney was enduring his third and final stint in the Ancient bone-knitting machine Carson had found, gritting his teeth and breathing through the pain, when Sheppard wandered in, looking like he'd taken a wrong turn and somehow missed the mess. "Are you doing Lamaze?"
Rodney tried to sit up to properly glare, which wasn't really possible with his arm and shoulder in the machine. "I was shot! I flew a jumper with a broken arm!"
Sheppard pulled up a chair and straddled it. "Yeah, that was pretty cool. You wanna do it again?"
"Are you crazy?"
Several nurses came over and glared. Sheppard scooted his chair closer, dropping his voice like he'd been the one shouting. "I meant the flying part. I could give you some lessons." He arched an eyebrow. "So you don't crash next time."
"That was part of my cunning plan, you know," he grumbled. He felt like he should be more irritated, but there seemed to be, for once, something legitimately earnest in Sheppard's eyes.
"So, listen, here's an idea," Sheppard said. "You know that Lagrange Point satellite Gall won't stop talking about?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. Honestly, he appreciated the discovery, but you'd think the man had found a black hole or something. "Yes."
"Well, we're going to go check it out in a couple days. You wanna come? You should be all better by then." He gave Rodney's uninjured arm a light punch.
"Oh, should I?" Rodney looked pointedly at the large piece of Ancient machinery that was currently doing unspeakable things to his bones.
"Yeah," said Sheppard, dismissively. "You've got Sheppard genes now. We're like Weebles: we wobble but we don't fall down."
"So I'm part of your tribe now, hmm?" Rodney asked, hating that he sounded somewhat hopeful instead of full of pure, stinging indignation.
Sheppard shrugged in response, and glanced down. For a second he actually looked embarrassed, looked almost...vulnerable.
When he looked up again, his eyes were back to being full of mocking humor. "Fifteen hours stuck in a jumper with Gall, McKay. You can't make me face that alone."
"I faced being trapped in a jumper with Kolya alone," Rodney pointed out, surprised at how suddenly vindictive he sounded, at the way that Sheppard flinched.
His mouth drew tight. "I was coming to get you," he said, forcing on Rodney the full weight of his gaze. "I wouldn't have left you. You know that, right?"
"Sure," said Rodney, noncommittally. But he did know.
"So, the arm's almost better?" Sheppard asked, after a moment's silence.
"Considering it had a bullet in it! Being shot's painful, you know!"
"Yeah," said Sheppard, calmly, "I know."
Rodney spent a moment processing this.
"And the head?" Sheppard asked, making a vague gesture above his own eyebrow.
Rodney frowned. "Carson said it will probably scar." He rolled his eyes. "There, now people will be able to tell us apart."
Sheppard nodded, seeming to consider this. "Yeah, 'cause you'll be the one with the sexy and distinguished scar."
His enthusiasm was oddly catching. "You think?"
"Oh, yeah. Chicks dig scars. They think they're...rakish."
"Rakish..." Rodney said happily, lying back as his insides knit and mended.
He could work with that.
John was having too much fun. They'd been in the air for about fourteen hours, he and Rodney switching off between the pilot's and the co-pilot's seat. The jumpers were easy ships to fly—as the, er, crash course Rodney had given himself proved—but if you really got to know them, learned to finesse them, they'd do incredible things for you. Rodney already had the basics down and his tendency to weave was easily corrected, so John got to spend the bulk of the time teaching him his own special, signature moves, and also just enjoying the fact that they were flying through space. Rodney got into it even more than John had thought, had hoped, he would—not fussy and hesitant at all, really, he seemed to take John's little goading challenges in the spirit in which they were intended, gripping the controls and taking the jumper into dives and evasive maneuvers, even when there was nothing to evade besides imaginary TIE fighters and Death Star tractor beams. They spent a great deal of time high-fiving each other via elaborate handshake/salutes John had learned at the Academy ("I can't believe you people actually think this makes you look cool," Rodney said, but kept doing it anyway) and cheering/spurring each other on, which meant that by the end of fourteen hours, Gall and Abrams were thoroughly sick of them.
"Can you please stop doing that?" Gall asked as Rodney complied with John's request to "pretend like you're trying to lose a fleet of Star Destroyers in a field of asteroids."
John turned around in his chair. "You're not nauseous, are you? This thing has inertial dampeners."
"Yes, and having flown with them off?" Rodney interjected. "Believe me, you can really tell the difference. This is nothing."
"Yes, but I know that we're moving," said Gall. "That's enough."
John turned back and gave Rodney a pointed look. You see what you stuck me with?
Rodney's answering shrug said, Hey, it's not my fault. Then a certain gleam came into his eyes. One that said: Now watch this!
John may have whooped.
A few hours later, on the planet, John was definitely not whooping. The fun had drained from his body, what remained turning sick and stale at the pit of his belly. Gall lay on the floor, whimpering softly. John could barely stand to look at him. My fault, my fucking fault...
Luckily, Rodney seemed intent on providing a distraction. "Help me lift him up, we can carry him!"
"I don't think we should deliver an injured person right back to the Wraith who did this to him!" He double-checked his ordnance again. "You wait here with Gall," he told Rodney firmly, "and when I'm done making sure the Wraith isn't using our own equipment to sic all his little buddies on us, I'll come back for you."
He'd gotten right in Rodney's face, but to his surprise Rodney hadn't flinched or backed down. He met his gaze head on. "Will you?"
John felt a flare of anger, nuclear-hot. "If you want to be on my team, you will follow orders, McKay!"
He heard Rodney calling, "Major! Major!" as he raced away, but he tuned it out, mind as blank and empty as a dead channel.
Rodney squeezed his canteen so hard he was sure he heard the plastic start to crack. Brendan had barely managed two sips before he'd started to choke and wheeze again. This was...he couldn't even put a name to what this was, this awfulness that seemed to follow Sheppard wherever he went. Why had he ever wanted to be part of it?
Well, now he was: trapped on this planet, Abrams dead, Brendan...Brendan in really bad shape. And if he were honest, it was just as much his fault, too.
Fine! He was willing to take that responsibility. But that meant he should be out there fixing it, not waiting here, watching Brendan die, listening to Sheppard nearly blow himself up.
"Stay off the radio!" Sheppard barked. "I'm busy."
Brendan started coughing again. Rodney felt another heartsick lurch. "Do you want some more water?"
He shook his head. "Like that will really do any good."
"You'll be fine," Rodney emphatically lied. "Carson's really been throwing himself into testing the Ancient equipment. Just look what he did to my arm." He flexed the recently shot shoulder.
"Look what he did to your face," Brendan pointed out.
"Ha ha." He tried not to think about how Brendan was now equally transformed, his face lined and grey and withered. Rodney knew when he had gotten the better deal.
"Sorry about before." He felt suddenly like it needed to be said. He tried to crack a smile. "I know Sheppard is obnoxious. Apparently he and I together are very obnoxious."
Brendan managed to roll his eyes. "You're very alike."
"Well, duh." Rodney realized, belatedly, that this was perhaps not the nicest thing to say to an injured person.
Brendan also seemed to be able to manage condescending. "Not like that. That's all—" His hand trembled as he tried to wave it, then sank back miserably against the ground. "—Surface. I mean—" He started coughing again.
"You wish you were out there with him, don't you?"
"No! I wish we had all stayed together, that's all!"
Brendan shook his head, the slightest motion like a trembling leaf. "You do. I can tell. You want in the fight. I don't think a year of off-world travel would make me feel that way..."
"Well, stop talking and save your strength so you can find out!" Rodney said.
Brendan said nothing for a minute. Then he said, "Don't lie to me."
He was lying there, slumped, looking shriveled and drawn, like a broken doll. Rodney couldn't stand it anymore—that sick, spinning feeling, like they were alone and no one was coming. "Come on," he said suddenly, decisively. "I'm going to carry you back to the ship. We're going."
"You're going to carry me?" Brendan laughed—a horrible, rasping sound. "Rodney McKay is going to carry me?"
"Shut up!" Rodney snapped. He pulled the remains of the cocoon off, ignoring the dull sting of it against his fingers, and hoisted Brendan up. He felt disturbingly light. Like he was...empty inside, sucked dry.
"Are you all right, does that hurt?"
"Can't feel anything, really..." Brendan said. He sounded far away.
Rodney could feel him, though, the weight of him becoming slightly more real as they pressed on. The sand whipped at Rodney's skin, sharp little pinpricks. The sun stabbed at his eyes. Even with Brendan's weight on his back, he kept wanting to be assured of his presence. "How're you doing, Brendan? We're almost there. You're gonna be fine, just fine. We'll probably get there just in time to help Sheppard pick little Wraith pieces out of his hair. Does that sound good?"
Brendan mumbled something. Rodney shifted the weight on his back, uncomfortably. He was letting Brendan's feet drag, that couldn't be good. And maybe you weren't actually supposed to move an injured person? Even to get him out of a combat zone? Why hadn't he listened to Sheppard?
"Brendan? Brendan! Come on, stay with me!"
Brendan moaned against his back. "You have a very whiny voice, do you know that?"
"It's not my voice, it's Sheppard's. I have a lovely robust tenor." Rodney stumbled, caught himself as he almost fell, and forced himself to straighten up. He could feel the sweat coursing down his back, under his vest.
"Tell me...tell me more about what you're thinking we can get that satellite to do. Okay? Brendan?"
"...use it to kill the Wraith..." Brendan mumbled.
Rodney nodded vigorously, keeping his eyes on his feet, carefully moving one after the other. "I like that plan. I hope I told you, I think that is a very good plan." There was a sudden explosion of gunfire, much closer than Rodney would have expected. "Shit!"
He dropped, jostling Brendan badly on the way down. "I'm sorry!" he whispered.
"S'okay." Brendan slumped against a sand dune. "I can't really feel it..."
Rodney peered up over the rise. "I think they're close. I should probably... Will you be okay if I go check on Sheppard?"
Brendan nodded, weakly.
Rodney looked at him and swallowed. "I'm coming right back, okay? I didn't come all this way to leave you here. I'll be right back!"
Brendan's breathing was slow. "I know," he said. He glanced up. "Whatever happens, Rodney...thanks for—"
"No, shut up! You're going to be fine." Rodney took a deep breath and adjusted his grip on the Beretta.
He bounded over the dune in time to see the Wraith looming over Sheppard with a knife. He fired without thinking, but thankfully not without aiming; the Wraith jerked twice, hit, then turned to face him, snarling. Rodney nearly started back but forced himself to stand his ground. "Major!"
"Just keep firing!"
The bullets barely seemed to slow the thing down. Rodney scrambled to reload, but though he'd kept going to the firing range even after getting dropped from Sheppard's team, he'd been sort of lax about this part. His hands were sweaty from carrying Brendan.
The clip finally went in. He started firing again, still to little effect. His mind was so full of fear and adrenaline that he couldn't even tell the difference anymore. This must be what it was like to run on automatic, to act without thinking.
Suddenly Sheppard said, "McKay, run!" and Rodney didn't think about it at all. He ran.
John found Rodney kneeling at the base of a dune, checking Gall's pulse. He already had a pretty good guess what he would find. Rodney's, "Goddammit. No. Goddammit," did the job of confirming it.
Rodney sat back, slumped against the sand, pushing his sweaty hair out of his eyes. John shivered, slightly, in spite of the heat, the image reminding him too suddenly, too much, of something else. "You carried him all the way here?" he asked softly.
John sighed and sat down beside him. "We should go back for Abrams, too."
Rodney bent his head. "Yeah."
John reached into his vest, unscrewed his canteen, and took a big gulp. "Ford and Teyla will be here soon. We can wait." He offered the canteen to Rodney.
Rodney took it, eying John's bandaged arm as he did. "Copycat," he mumbled.
"Yes, well." John nudged him lightly with his unhurt shoulder. "We're brothers in arms now."
Rodney's laugh was bitter. "I guess so." He turned and looked John head on, in a way John found uncomfortable and disarming, a pinning glance. "How can you do it? Keep going out there when you know you can lose people. When you know your shitty decisions can get people killed?" He sniffed, suddenly, and looked like himself again—as much as that was possible. "I'm not used to making decisions that are anything but brilliant."
John sighed, staring out across the sand. He felt like being honest, for once, but that question...he wasn't sure he knew an honest answer.
"You just do the best you can, I guess."
Rodney nodded. John looked over at him, slumped there beside him—he still looked bowed, beaten. Sitting there with the body he'd dragged across the desert for nothing.
He wished, suddenly, that he could say the things he wished someone had said to him when he'd faced his own great failure, when instead they'd given him nothing but a large black mark in a field of icy white.
Then he realized that he could.
"Look, you did good today." He saw Rodney blink but he didn't look up. "The stuff with the Genii, too. Have I told you how much I love the image of Kolya banging around in that drowned jumper like an old sardine in a can?"
Rodney snorted; he rolled his eyes. "That was nothing, though. I mean—" He waved his hand. "I don't know if it was even me." He glanced over at John. "Probably your stupid heroic streak. Contagious."
"What?" His eyes were challenging.
"Bravery is not genetic."
Rodney folded his arms, as if he were saying Prove it.
"It's not! It's not something you're born with, or that is innate. And just because you're brave once, doesn't mean you will be again. It's a decision you have to make, every time."
Rodney seemed to be considering this. John nudged him again, prodding him; it was suddenly very important that he see—
"I saw you make that choice back when I first met you. The energy cloud, remember?"
Rodney started to nod, then began shaking his head even more vehemently. "But I was already infected with you then!" he said, with a thrusting finger. He sounded almost triumphant.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," said John. "You have to know that was you. Don't take it away from yourself." He tilted his head to the side. "It's not like you to deny yourself credit. Who are you and what have you done with Rodney?"
This laugh was warmer, but still slightly hollow. "I wish I knew."
When they finally got back to Atlantis, Rodney went directly to his quarters and slept for something like fifteen hours straight. When he woke again, it was to find Martine Dumais ringing his door chime.
"Would you like to have that dinner now?" she asked.
"Yes! Of course!" he said, then realized he was standing there in his boxer shorts.
He felt the tips of his ears start to burn. Martine just laughed. "I'll meet you there in half an hour, yes?"
He nodded eagerly, then threw himself into the shower, gratefully scrubbing the last of the sand and the sweat from his body. Somehow, he managed to find a clean shirt amongst his sadly diminished supply, then spent a few seconds trying to do something about his hair, before remembering that nothing could ever fix this hair, ever. He gave himself a quick shave (Sheppard could work the five o'clock shadow look, but it gave Rodney some bad flashbacks to the poorly-thought-out soul patch era of his youth), then made his way to the mess at what he hoped was a hurried but still dignified pace.
Martine was already in line when he got there. Rodney thought about joining her, but that would mean cutting in front of Bates, and just—no. He went to the back of the line, where he was soon joined by Peter. He could feel Grodin giving him the now all-too-familiar once over, trying to establish whether the person standing in front of him was Rodney or Sheppard. He'd start asking "clever" probing questions next: "So how did work go today?", etc. Rodney rolled his eyes and decided to save him the trouble. "Yes, hi, it's me, McKay."
"I knew that," said Peter, the big liar. Rodney rolled his eyes again and mentally urged the line to move faster.
Peter apparently wanted to talk about the aborted mission to the satellite, which Rodney really didn't want to think about right now. "Do you know what they're serving tonight?" he asked instead, cutting Peter off mid-sentence.
"Ah. I believe the listserv said vegetarian lasagne, lemon chicken, green beans..."
Catching sight of Rodney's scowl, he stopped talking. "I take it another 'ban citrus' petition has been ignored?"
"Perhaps you should ask to transfer from Head of Science to Head of Commissary."
"Ha ha." He turned, somewhat relieved, to the Marine who was on chow duty. "Lasagne," he said with a sigh.
A chunk was slopped onto his plate. "There you go, sir."
Rodney would have corrected him, but he rather liked being called "sir."
"Better to have the lasagne, anyway," said Peter, collecting his own piece. "After all, meat is murder."
"That cheese came from a cow, you know," Rodney said, and went to go find Martine.
She was sitting alone, her feet up possessively on the chair opposite her. When she saw him she smiled and kicked the chair out. Rodney grinned and sat down, his face falling almost instantly when he saw the lemon sauce covering her plate and dripping sticky from one of her fingers, shining her lips. "What?" she said, when she saw his expression. "Rodney, what's wrong?"
"Um," he said, carefully sitting back, "I—well, I guess there's no reason you'd know this, but I am highly—deadly allergic to—"
He stopped suddenly as it dawned on him, as it hit him like a dropped brick. "I'm an idiot," he said.
Martine tilted her head, charmingly puzzled at this admittedly bizarre statement. "What?"
He shook his head, clearing it. "Nothing. Sorry. Actually...this is going to sound weird, but can I have a bite of your chicken?"
She nodded and let him eat it right off her plate.
"Well," he said a moment or so later, in which nothing remarkable—like a case of anaphylactic shock—had occurred. "That's...different."
"It's the same chicken they always make," said Martine. Fortunately she still sounded more bemused than 'Oh my god, I am eating with a crazy man, please get me out of here.'
"It's different because I'm with you," Rodney answered. A second later, when he realized exactly what it was he had just said, he had to physically restrain himself from stabbing himself with his own fork. And yet—miraculously—Martine didn't seem offended, or on the verge of gagging. She was smiling. After a moment, she giggled.
Sheppard must have some kind of freaky magic powers. Rodney wasn't sure whether he felt excited or disappointed that he would possibly have the chance to employ them.
However, the rest of the dinner conversation went incredibly well, and that—combined, oddly, with the lingering taste of lemon on his tongue—made him bold. As they were finishing, he told Martine that he still had a stash of chocolate bars hidden in his room—would she like to help him liberate a few? She would? Excellent. And apparently she would also like to stand very close to him in the transporter. Rodney felt a rush of excitement moving through this unfamiliar body—still the most familiar thing in the world.
They were two feet inside Rodney's door when Martine put her arms around his neck and kissed him. Rodney swallowed his little huff of surprise and kissed her back. She tasted sweet with just a hint of sourness, a shadow taste of the forbidden. He felt a little awkward kissing with these lips, a little fumbling and unsure, but when she pulled back he was able to show her one of Sheppard's smiles. "Sorry," he said, hoping to show her that he was capable of modesty, "I'm used to having a bigger mouth."
To his surprise, this time she didn't smile back. Instead she stepped away from him, looking suddenly fraught. "Oh, god. This is strange, isn't it? You're not— I mean," she'd started gnawing her lip, "I almost feel like we should ask Major Sheppard's permission."
Rodney felt himself droop. "You want me to ask the Major for permission to have sex," he said flatly. Then, a second later: "I mean, not that we were going to— I didn't mean to presume—"
Martine waved this concern away, but still reached to pinch the bridge of her nose. "I'm not sure I— I mean, I was willing to fuck—" She had the slightest trace of an accent when she said the word 'fuck,' and Rodney felt his heart flip even as he tried to resign it to the surely inevitable disappointment. "—One of my bosses, but two of them, I don't know..."
"Sheppard and I aren't actually a unit, you know," Rodney said, somewhat desperately. "I actually don't even know him that well."
Martine shook her head, touching those long, graceful hands to her forehead. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." She sounded like she genuinely meant it. "I just, I tried to be impulsive, but I am not by nature an impulsive person, you know?" Rodney had to nod, to admit he did. "I need to think about this," she said, reaching out and drawing her fingers lightly across his wrist. "Just a few days, can you give me that, to think about this?"
And of course Rodney found himself agreeing. Showing her to the door, saying, of course, of course.
He could wait.
John heard his door chime sound and gratefully set aside War and Peace. "Yeah?" he shouted, rotating his feet over the edge of the bed.
The door slid open. "Hey," said Rodney.
He was holding a handful of chocolate bars. "Where'd you get those?" John asked, vaguely impressed.
"I've been saving them," Rodney said. "Here." He dumped them on the edge of the bed. "For saving everyone today."
John was pretty sure he was missing something. "It was your plan. Partly." Rodney didn't respond. "And also your fabulous advice. 'Get far away from the nuclear explosion'—I was thinking I might make a sampler."
Rodney still wasn't saying anything—just looking down at him, kind of hollow-eyed. He'd had a very close call himself—maybe he was in shock? "Hey, are you okay?"
Apparently, that was what Rodney had been waiting for. He sank down onto the bed at John's side, nearly smushing his offering of chocolate bars. "One of the women who died today," he said after a moment, "I was kind of seeing her."
John blinked, then swore. "Jesus, Rodney! I'm so sorry."
Rodney shook his head. "Yeah, well. We hadn't—it wasn't serious."
He seemed pretty seriously upset, though. "Have you talked to somebody? Maybe Heightmeyer or somebody?"
Rodney shook his head. "Everyone else—they just bring it around to you. Even Martine—" His voice cracked slightly on the name. "Anyway," he continued, much more strongly, subtly shaking himself, "I might as well bring it back to the source, hmm?" He shot John an oddly defiant stare.
John felt torn between being angry that once again people—and even Rodney himself—seemed to think that because this had happened, Rodney was now his responsibility, and wanting...well, wanting to reach over and put a hand on Rodney's back, to offer his own shoulder as a place for Rodney to cry out the tears of frustration and grief that John never allowed himself to shed. Instead he stumbled toward something resembling the middle ground. Staring straight ahead, "This is why it's sometimes better not to get attached," he said.
Rodney scoffed. "Oh, please. So your solution is 'Never have sex again'?"
"I never said anything about sex," said John, arching an eyebrow that he hoped conveyed the full extent of, 'What are you, a woman?' as well as, 'Please, can we never talk about this kind of thing again?'
Rodney may or may not have caught all that; he rolled his eyes. "Charming, Major. I can't believe—" He stopped, abruptly.
"What?" John pressed, in spite of himself.
The tips of Rodney's ears pinkened; John knew what that meant. "Martine actually wanted me to ask your permission before we had sex," he said in a small voice.
It took John a moment to parse that. "What?" he said.
Rodney shrugged, struggling between bewilderment, grief, and embarrassment.
"Rodney, for the record," John said quickly, "you absolutely do not need to ask my permission. Have sex with whoever you want—I don't need to hear about it, I don't want to know about it—"
"Well, I kind of figured that." Rodney fidgeted. "It's not like I've been asking for your permission every time I jerk off."
John gave in and put his head in his hands.
He gave it a good thirty seconds and then peeked, hoping against hope that Rodney had somehow taken the hint and left. No such luck, of course. Rodney was studying him like he might a particularly interesting—and possibly enthusiastically blinking—Ancient artifact. "Did you really mean that?" he asked. "About not becoming attached? To anybody?"
John sighed. "It was advice, Rodney. Advice, like orders, being one of those things I'm not so good at following. Even my own."
Rodney looked like he wasn't quite sure what to make of that. John felt the same way about pretty much this whole conversation. "So," he said abruptly, patting Rodney on the knee and quickly standing up, "you gonna be okay?"
"I was planning on a nervous breakdown, actually"—which, as far as John Sheppard was concerned, meant yes.
"Good." John paused, looking down at the figure on the bed. He'd just been thinking that he wanted to have a very different conversation with Rodney, but now he was unsure again. Did he really want to encourage him into thinking that they were—what? Friends? Confidants? Brother-confessors? That was the last thing he wanted.
But he had other concerns besides his personal ones to think about. And there had been a time when he'd been decisive. Months ago, on this very issue, he'd been decisive.
"So," he said casually, "you may have noticed that I seem to have a problem where I keep losing teammates..."
"Yes, it speaks very highly of you," said Rodney.
That...stung, but he was pretty sure Rodney hadn't meant it to. Nor could John deny it.
"I was thinking," John continued, still going for casual, "that I might break the curse by returning to the original lineup."
Rodney's eyes darted up, but other than the movement, his expression remained frustratingly vague, frustratingly familiar. How unfair that someone else should be able to turn that expression on him.
Still, John smiled in the face of it. "Wanna come check out a space gate with me?"
"When I said, 'You don't need my permission to have sex,' I didn't mean, 'Please, have sex with women I...''" Sheppard's vocabulary appeared to abandon him. "Not the same woman!" he finished, lamely.
"Well, you should have specified, shouldn't you?" Rodney folded his arms and glared. "Besides, it wasn't sex. It was a deeply meaningful sharing experience."
"I know! She'd shared it with me five minutes before!"
"What's your point?"
"I was with her first!"
Rodney smirked. "I was with her longer."
"Gentlemen," said Elizabeth tiredly, "is the gateroom really the place to have this conversation?"
"Can I borrow your flashlight?" McKay asked.
John handed it over. "I don't know why you even bother to ask when you'd just take it anyway. First flashlights, then women—"
"Oh, very mature," said McKay, who was one to talk. "I think Old Elizabeth expected more from us when she gave us these gate addresses, don't you?"
They returned to their work for a few minutes. "You know," John couldn't help interjecting, "if I weren't so forgiving, you wouldn't even be here."
"Ha." He didn't look up from studying the stones. "You just don't want to have officially lost more teammates than you've kept."
John raised his head to release an appropriate rejoinder and caught Teyla glaring at him. "Would you two stop? You are both being very tiresome."
"Priestesses like this Chaya Sar must be highly respected and sought after among your people," he heard Alina whisper. Teyla seemed to pause to consider this. And in that moment of silence, John heard gunshots.
The argument vanished like a Wraith in the mist. John went quickly to the chamber's opening; he could sense Rodney and Teyla moving to stand beside him. "Ford?"
"Major Sheppard," said a creepily familiar voice. "I'm afraid the Lieutenant has had to step away for a moment."
"Who is that?" asked Teyla.
"Oh," breathed Rodney, stiffening beside him, "It can't be..."
John didn't recognize the face, but he knew the man anyway: standing above them, his gun pointed down at their heads. "Surprised?" he said, and then to John's deep if unfortunately fleeting delight, a brief look of shock passed over his own face. His eyes moved back and forth between John and Rodney. "Well," he said, "as am I, it seems. This explains much." His gun swiveled back and forth with his gaze now. "Which of you is the incompetent one?"
John felt Rodney start uselessly forward and put out a restraining hand. It didn't restrain Rodney's mouth, however.
"You mean the one who trapped you and your men at the bottom of a lake like a...a sack of kittens?" Rodney's eyes had darkened to black; John had never seen him look so furious before. "How'd you escape?"
Kolya continued to look smug. "That planet houses but one of many secret facilities belonging to my people. Do you really think we arrived unnoticed, or that they would not come to investigate a crash?"
Rodney grinned. "So you're saying you had to be rescued. Too bad you weren't incompetent enough to escape on your own!"
"Rodney," cautioned Teyla, wisely, "do not make him angry."
"What did you do with Ford?" John asked. He had to steer this to their advantage somehow, but he couldn't think of a way. Kolya held all the cards. And the rope.
"He's fine. Better off than you." Kolya smiled at them like he might at a good cut of meat being given to him to carve. "I came here in search of the lost treasure of the Quindozum, but now I'm thinking I might prefer to cover the mouth of this chamber and forget about the whole thing."
"No! You promised!"
John turned, surprised to hear one of Alina's assistants speak. Alina herself was apparently a bit quicker on the uptake than he was, her eyes narrowing as she hissed, "Suneera!"
The girl whimpered excuses, then reeled from Alina's slap. Kolya chuckled. "It seems you have a rat in your hole. Now, should I seal the trap...?"
"And what good would that do you?" Rodney again, a look in his eyes that made John uneasy it was so familiar. "Sure, you might feel satisfied with your petty revenge for five minutes, but you'll never find your prize without us." He lifted his chin, then, in a movement that was all him. "Let me out of here and I'll find it for you. But then you let my team go."
He was throwing himself to the wolves. John admired it but couldn't stand by and watch it happen. "Shut up, McKay!"
He hissed back. "Have you got a better idea?"
"Not yet, but—"
"Is this some sibling rivalry I see?" Kolya boomed. The bastard was enjoying this.
Rodney turned and glared. "Do we have a deal or not?"
Kolya dangled the rope like a shining piece of bait. There was nothing John could do as Rodney reached out and took it.
Rodney stared down at the stones. He'd come this far, reasoning his way through, ignoring as much as he could of Kolya's crap, even when he felt crazily close to snapping and making a move on him, despite knowing that would surely result in his own death. But now it had finally happened. His mind had failed him. He stared down at the stones: nine stones, arranged one to nine. He knew that was wrong. But everything else he was coming up with he knew to be wrong, too.
"This is taking too long," Kolya said, voice eerily calm. Of course, he could afford to be calm—he didn't really care if he killed them all in the process of getting the ZPM, or even if he got the ZPM at all. "Choose and go."
"You got somewhere you got to be?" Rodney snapped. His palms were sweating. He was going to press his sweaty palms to the device and then he was going to die, just like Kolya's man had.
And then Sheppard would die. And Teyla. And Ford. And Alina.
Okay, concentrate. Concentrate. The five had to go in the middle...
"I think it's got to be something to do with fifteen," said Sheppard for the second time.
"Quiet! Let me think!"
Beside him, he saw Sheppard roll his eyes. "Heard the term two heads are better than one?"
"It's a common misconception!" Rodney hated how his voice sounded. He'd felt so in control earlier, even with Kolya pushing him around. He'd known he was better than Kolya.
But he wasn't. He wasn't better. He'd been weakened, reduced. Before Sheppard had seeped into his head, he would have been able to solve this, no problem. He knew it.
"Choose and go," Kolya intoned. Rodney's death knell.
Nine to one. Could he really think of nothing better than nine to one? Oh, why did Sheppard have to be such a lout? Sure, he was brave, and Rodney had appreciated borrowing his bravery, but what good did bravery do him here?
"I'm sorry," he said, to no one in particular. He lifted his palms.
"Wait!" Sheppard had snatched his hand in his. Rodney turned to him, surprised. "The brotherhood of fifteen," Sheppard said.
"The numbers one to nine have to be put in a three by three grid with fifteen in every direction!"
Rodney stared at his face, then down at the pedestal. "Ah ha!" For a moment he felt the triumph as if it were his own. Well, it was: it meant he got to live. "It's a magic square. How did you know?"
Sheppard shrugged; he looked almost embarrassed. "It was on the MENSA test."
"You're in MENSA?" Rodney's heart began to pound. Sheppard was smart? Sheppard was actually certifiably smart? But then, he'd known Sheppard was smart—he'd seen it. Why had he been such a dumbass about it?
"Let's talk about this later," he said. Sheppard did not looked thrilled at this suggestion, but he leaned over to help and together they arranged the stones.
"Two, nine, four," Rodney started.
"Seven, five, three," Sheppard continued.
"Six, one, eight!" they finished. "That's got to be it," Rodney said.
"Good luck," said Kolya, smirkingly.
I'm going to kill you, Rodney thought. He laid his hands on the imprints.
The room collectively held its breath; then a ZPM slid out of the wall.
Rodney held back his cry of delight. He could see Kolya's hungry eyes on the ZPM, Rodney's ZPM, and if he thought he was going to get his greedy, cruel hands on it, he was sorely mistaken. Rodney walked slowly to the wall, thinking, thinking.
Then everything exploded.
They had done it. They had turned the tables. John surveyed the end results, pleased. Then he walked over to Kolya.
"We'll send a villager to pick you up in about an hour." He gave Kolya the full weight of his stare. "It's better than you deserve."
Kolya didn't flinch. "The smart thing would be to kill me now."
John wanted to. He really, really wanted to. But he knew what Elizabeth would say; knew they needed all the allies in this galaxy that they could get. Some arrangement might still be reached with the Genii.
He was about to hammer these points home with a few opened-ended threats when he felt a movement beside him.
"You're right," said Rodney. Before John could say anything, he'd raised his gun and shot Kolya through the head.
The report echoed loudly through the small chamber. "McKay!" John said as it died. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Sorry, I just meant to scare him. Guess my aim was off due to my recent blinding."
His expression was entirely flat. He was lying.
"Elizabeth can yell at me later." He turned and walked away.
Out in the light, Alina and a group of her people gathered around and thanked them for finding the potentia, wishing them luck with it when they returned to their people in the city of the Ancestors. Rodney was surprisingly gracious with them; John couldn't look at him.
They gathered up their things and prepared to go through the gate.
"It has been an honor to serve the Ancestors," Alina said, bowing slightly as the wormhole engaged.
"Yes, well," said John, slightly puzzled, "it's our honor, too."
Teyla drew close to his side as they approached the event horizon. "Major, I think the Daganians mistakenly believed that we are the Ancestors, and not merely residents of their city." She looked troubled by this, but John didn't really know what to do. "Should we go back and tell them?"
"I think we've dealt with enough headaches for today," he said. "Besides, we're doing what the Ancestors would have wanted with the ZPM anyway, right?"
Any protest Teyla might have made regarding this assumption vanished when they returned to the city to discover that three Wraith hives were on their way.
Rodney found Sheppard standing on one of the balconies. "So," he said, "we have two weeks to live. That really...sharpens one's priorities, doesn't it?"
Sheppard shrugged. "At least we have that ZPM. If the shield can hold, we might have a fighting chance."
Rodney eyed him for a moment, then moved to lean against the rail at his side. "Do you really believe that?"
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "I have to."
"Ah, optimism. I've, uh," Rodney shifted awkwardly. "Never been much good at that."
He paused for a moment, considering. Remembering: two weeks. "Are you still mad at me?" he finally asked.
"What for?" asked Sheppard, casual. The big liar.
Rodney rolled his eyes, waved his hand. "For Chaya. For killing Kolya."
Sheppard shook his head. "I can't believe you did that."
Rodney sighed, staring down at his hands where they lay across the metal bar. "It was...rash, I know. I guess I didn't really think it through. Because I'd never... I'd never, ah..."
"Yeah, it's always nice to have that first kill be impulsive," Sheppard said.
"It wasn't—" Rodney suppressed a shudder. When he spoke his voice came out low. "I don't actually feel guilty about it."
"For your sake," said Sheppard, "I hope that one day you do."
Rodney felt a rise of anger. "So, what are you saying? Do you really think it was a bad thing to do? He shot me! He kidnapped me! He was going to destroy the city! Do you think he felt guilty about any of those things?"
"No, but we're supposed to be better than he is." Sheppard's voice remained level. "Trouble is, we're not." Rodney caught his glance, sly and sideways though it was. "I'd kind of thought you were, though."
Rodney felt baffled. "What are you saying?"
Sheppard shook his head. "Nothing. Just, it didn't seem like you. It's kind of freaking me out."
Rodney's heart pounded. "What, you mean you really think I'm changing? That I have? That in the chamber, that was all you? Your," he couldn't help the air quotes, "'killer instincts'?"
Sheppard shrugged. "I've killed. I do kill, when I have to. Don't know if it's in my DNA, though. And I do know what DNA is, by the way," he said, turning and giving Rodney a pointed look. "Deoxyribonucleic acid."
"Was that on the MENSA test?" Rodney asked, going for acidic himself. He didn't quite get there.
"I can't believe you figured out that that was a magic square and I didn't," he said instead. "Not that I'm not grateful!" he added. Yet he continued to eye Sheppard suspiciously. "What's your IQ really?"
Sheppard grew still for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. He leaned over and whispered in Rodney's ear.
Rodney's eyes did not go wide; he didn't let them. "I suppose that's...adequate."
"It's considerably lower then mine, of course."
"Oh, of course."
"Or at least lower than mine was," said Rodney, suddenly morose. He slumped down, leaning his chin against the rail. "I mean, even if we somehow miraculously do survive the Wraith attack, how am I supposed to win a Nobel Prize now? Who am I? Nobody will believe that I'm Rodney McKay looking like this—" He gestured at his stupid lanky hairy self. "I was too well known in my previous, much more attractive, incarnation. I'll have to start all over! But as who? I have no identity of my own, you have no doctorates..."
"I have an M.S. in math?" Sheppard offered.
Rodney might have done a double-take. "Okay, one—why are you wasting yourself on the military? And two—that's very nice, but I prefer my three PhDs, thank you very much. But they might as well not exist!" He opened his hand like they might get to see his advanced degrees pop out of them and vanish on the night breeze. "I don't exist," he said, dropping his hand back down to his side. "I can't even say goodbye to my sister."
Sheppard was looking at him. It wasn't pity in his eyes, thank god. Sympathy, maybe. Rodney sighed. "So who'd you send a message to?"
Sheppard turned back to the water. "Sumner's family."
"Oh." Rodney realized Sheppard must still have issues over that. "That was good. That was a good thing to do."
"So who else did you say goodbye to? Do you have a sister? Any siblings?"
For some reason, Sheppard rolled his eyes. "No."
"Your parents, then?"
"Rodney, just drop it!"
Rodney blinked at the sudden edge to his voice. Oh.
He swiftly changed the subject. "I haven't spoken to my sister in years. We had a huge fight. I wanted to say I was sorry."
"I'm sure she knows," Sheppard lied.
Rodney nodded and accepted it.
He turned and looked out at the ocean. "Maybe I can go see her if we ever connect with Earth again. I can pretend to be my—Rodney's friend. With a message for her from him. Maybe I died heroically and the last words on my lips were an apology—"
"We're not going to go out apologizing," Sheppard said firmly. "Go out fighting, that's what we do."
"Sure. Of course." Rodney nodded vigorously. "Or, you know. We could not die at all?"
Sheppard actually smiled. "And you say you're not an optimist."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a chocolate bar; Rodney recognized it as one of the ones he had given him. He broke it and two and offered half to Rodney.
"To Atlantis," said Sheppard, "may we do right by her."
"And to Earth," agreed Rodney, "may we see her again."
They toasted each other with months-old chocolate bars. "To Atlantis," Rodney echoed.
Sheppard nodded. "To Earth."
Rodney thought, To brothers in arms.
"Well, so it turns out, Earth blows," Rodney said.
John succeeded in his efforts not to spit out the Daedalus' terrible coffee and raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Of course, for all I know we weren't even on Earth, because I don't think I saw the sky or anything outside the Mountain the entire time we were there!"
John grimaced. "Oh."
"Yeah, and my plan to show up on Jeannie's doorstep pretending to be a comrade of the brave Doctor McKay, who died heroically in my arms? That was a wash." He paused, halfway through his own sip. "Um. And how did your—was Ford's...."
"As well as could be expected, under the circumstances." John didn't want to think about his stiff, rehearsed, We regret to inform you... He quickly redirected the subject. "I notice you're being a little stingy with the congratulations here, McKay."
Rodney's posture suddenly straightened from the same slump John realized he himself was still enjoying. "Of course, how could I forget? We're Lieutenant Colonels now!"
John's spine abruptly straightened, too. "Excuse me—we?"
"Well, yeah." Rodney shot him a smirk over his cup. "When people come up to me in the hall and start talking to me thinking I'm you, now they'll mistakenly call me Colonel instead of Major."
John couldn't help a small pout. "No one ever mistakenly calls me 'Doctor.'"
"Well," said Rodney with a wave of his mug, "I'm inimitable."
John waved his own mug. "I'm inimitable," he said in the exact same tone.
Rodney set the mug down. "Oh, very funny."
John's mug went back on the table. "Oh, very funny."
"You're twelve, you know that?"
"You're twelve, you know that?"
"Really, do your dignity a small favor and cut it out."
"Really, do your dignity a small favor and cut it out."
"This is not conduct becoming a Lieutenant Colonel!"
John was vaguely aware of Elizabeth appearing in the doorway. He had more important business to attend to, however. "This is not conduct becoming a Lieutenant Colonel!" he returned.
"I'll come back," said Elizabeth,
"You know," said Rodney, leaning forward and pointing an accusatory finger, "even Jeannie was never this annoying."
"You know," John waved that finger like crazy, "even Jeannie was never this annoying."
"Even when she was like, 'Mer, Mer, explain thermodynamics to me!'"
"Even when—" John stopped. "Wait, 'Mer'?"
"My name's really Meredith," said Rodney, taking a swig. "Also, I win."
It was a relief to be back in Atlantis. And not just because they'd almost ended up docking not on the pier but in the middle of a nearby sun. It felt good to have the hum of the city all around him again—he'd forgotten how omnipresent it was, like wonderfully relaxing white noise. It felt good, too, to be able to move around without an escort, to be able to step outside on a whim, to be considered a leader and not a threat to national security due to some bizarre reason related to his face. And it felt good to be around other familiar faces again.
Of course, there were also suddenly a lot of new faces. Thanks to the Daedalus they could finally bring in new personnel (Rodney tried not to think too hard about how many were actually replacement personnel), and so he had new scientists to train, new Marines to avoid. Then it struck him, as he was showing a new batch of botanists around their department: for the first time, really, he was interacting with people who hadn't known him, before. People for whom this face, this body, might as well be the real deal. Someone would say 'Rodney McKay,' and they wouldn't see him. They'd see Sheppard. Even in his own mind, the truth was becoming hazy.
He pushed down his panic, though—he was getting better at that, he thought. Genii invasions and Wraith attacks and nearly crashing into a sun would do that to you. Besides, there were ways he could turn it to his advantage.
"Your orders, sir?" asked the new Air Force Major they'd brought on board to be Sheppard's 2IC.
Rodney produced a piece of paper and scrawled a list.
Sheppard found him later. "Rodney, please stop Punk'ing my men."
"What? It's an initiation ceremony! You 'zoomies' are big on that, right?"
"Rodney..." He touched a hand to his forehead in annoyance, but he was faking it. "I don't give orders to your scientists, do I?"
"Oh, please—like they'd listen to you. They barely listen to me." He shot Sheppard a mischievous look. "Did Major Lorne enjoy collecting the 'special box' down on the east pier?"
"He's totally going to get you back for that," said Sheppard.
"We'll see," said Rodney, breezily. "He might get you."
John plopped down at the table. "Not bad, huh?"
Ronon barely glanced up—not quite the reaction John had been hoping for. "It's fine." He raised his eyes again. "Which one are you?"
John bit down on his annoyance. "I'm Colonel Sheppard."
Ronon continued to stuff food in his mouth. "Which one is that?"
"The cool one?"
This was apparently not specific enough; Ronon failed to react. "I'm the first one you met on the planet. The one who freed those botanists you kidnapped?"
"I'm a pilot and Rodney's a scientist; I know we look alike but it's not actually that hard to tell us apart..."
The continuing delivery of food to mouth was momentarily paused. "Do you have a point?"
"Yes, I wanted to know what you thought of Atlantis." Be cool, John. He was the cool one, remember?
Ronon returned to the food, shrugging. "It's fine." He kept eating.
"Yeah. Cool, huh?"
Lieutenant Cadman laughed. "Very."
Rodney peeled back another layer of the dart they'd captured. "Biomechanical systems are very interesting," he agreed. "Their hives are like this, too. Living ships."
"Does that make them easier to destroy?" Cadman asked. "That they're alive?"
"Unfortunately, no." He turned to her. She'd looked cute in her little Marine beret, but with her hair down, all loose and relaxed, she was gorgeous. And she'd approached him! When they'd gotten back from the planet where they captured the dart, she had approached him and told him she "liked the way he hustled." Rodney made an effort not to start bouncing up and down.
"But it should help to have an explosives expert on our side," he told her.
Cadman grinned. "I think being on your side is something I'm definitely going to enjoy."
The last few days had apparently been productive. John had finally been able to secure them a new teammate. Meanwhile, Rodney got himself a girlfriend.
"She's a friend," said Rodney happily, "who's a girl."
"A sex friend?" asked Ronon.
Rodney just beamed.
Ronon turned to John. "I thought you were the cool one."
"I'm going to talk to Teyla now," said John loudly. "Hi, Teyla. How are you?"
"So kind of you to ask," said Teyla, dryly.
It was almost a relief when, not long after, their spaceship got shot down.
Rodney could feel splinters from the blaster shot the disgusting murderous leader had fired at his head. Well, near his head—judging from the hole in the shack wall, if he'd actually been aiming at Rodney, there wouldn't be much head left. Okay, he definitely got the message.
"All right," he said quickly, thinking hard. "I'll fix it. But, uh. I'll need my brother to help me." He shot Sheppard a quick look. Please, please play along.
"You what," the DML said.
"Well, you know," Rodney tried a smile, "two heads are better than one? Besides, we're like—a team, a unit. Like, Wilbur and Orville Wright? Auguste and Louis Lumière. Um..."
"Joel and Ethan Coen," suggested Sheppard. Rodney remembered at the last second not to glare at him and instead shot another sparkling grin at the DML.
"Fine," he growled. Rodney felt someone move behind him and start undoing his bonds.
The DML strode out following his pronouncement, apparently confident or cocky enough that they wouldn't try to pull anything once his back was turned. Rodney glanced around and saw that Sheppard, also in the process of being untied, was trying to whisper some last words to Ronon and Teyla. "Ow!" he said loudly to the prisoner who was untying him. "Can't you be more careful? You're chafing my wrists and I have very delicate skin..."
Ronon snorted at the outburst, but Rodney saw Teyla nod—apparently Sheppard had managed to get his message across.
They were led from the shack and back toward the puddlejumper. Luckily, space inside the jumper was limited: they were left inside with only one guy, the rest of the guards covering the entrance. Rodney crawled under the console and gestured for Sheppard to follow so that they could "check the damage."
"Please tell me you have a plan!" he hissed as soon as he thought they stood a reasonable chance of not being overheard.
"What?" said Sheppard. "I thought you had a plan!"
"No! I just thought if I got us some time together, we could come up with one. What were you whispering to Ronon and Teyla?"
"I was telling them not to decapitate themselves trying to break free, 'cause it looked like you had a plan!"
"Oh." Rodney thought. "Well, I guess we really should see how damaged this is."
Unfortunately, the answer was very, very damaged, and that was as far as they'd gotten when the DML came back and demanded to know their progress.
"Look, there's just no power getting to any of these controls, do you understand?" Sheppard helpfully demonstrated. "See? Nothing."
The Disgusting Murderous Leader, in a fit of Disgusting Murderous 'Logic,' did not seem to care. "Fix the ship, or they start dying, one after another. Starting with your brother."
He swept out. Sheppard rubbed a hand across his forehead, smearing more mud there. "Thanks for singling me out, by the way."
Rodney rolled his eyes and restrained himself from giving the side of the jumper a frustrated kick. (It wasn't her fault.) "Oh, like he wouldn't have assumed we were related anyway. You look exactly like something that made it into this world clinging to my ankle."
"Excuse me? I think it was the other way around!" Sheppard was clearly too tired to even make a good show of being angry. "Seriously," he said. "How screwed are we?" He gave Rodney a steady look that in other circumstances might've made him squirm. "What weren't you telling him?"
Rodney shot a glance at the one moony-looking guard who was still lingering inside the ship. He gestured for Sheppard to join him under the console again. "Okay," he said, once they were down there, "the main problem is that there's not enough power to operate the DHD, and the gate doesn't have its own DHD, for obvious reasons. But there's a small," he held up two fingers a very narrow distance apart, "a small chance that I might be able to cobble together enough power from secondary systems to activate the jumper's DHD."
Sheppard was nodding slowly, following along. "So then we can dial the gate and leave on foot?"
"Yeah. But it's a long shot at best—I'm going to have to bypass the main power distribution." He looked Sheppard in the eye. "I'm gonna need your help."
Sheppard's eyes widened slightly. "You're up to date on the part where I can fly these babies real well but I don't actually know how to fix them? You know, as opposed to the part you made up?"
"Yeah, you were flying real well when you crashed."
"John, listen." Rodney stumbled over the words slightly, momentarily surprised to feel them in his mouth. But he kept going. "I know you're not a complete moron, okay? So I think you can follow my instructions closely enough so that you don't blow us up. All right?"
He nodded. "All right."
Rodney backed out and started toward the first panel he'd need to access. "Oh, and while you're at it," he said, "you should probably also try to figure out a plan for busting Ronon and Teyla out."
John stared at the stack of crystals Rodney was handing him. "Which Lumière was the lazy brother?"
It was John who eventually came up with the idea of bribing their little squirrelly guard to go free Ronon and Teyla. Then he had to spend a ridiculous amount of time crawling around the floor of the jumper on his knees, connecting and disconnecting wires for Rodney, inserting crystals this way and that, enduring a few whispered shouts (turned out that with Rodney such a thing was possible) of "No! Not like that! Do you want to kill us all?" Mostly, though, it was good—good to be doing something, to not be tied up, to be active. Good to be able to follow Rodney's instructions and believe in them, to know they were working together toward a common goal—together, making it happen.
John was, on Rodney's instruction, connecting a cable to the underside of the DHD when he heard footsteps. He peered out: little squirrelly Eldon had done a good job and talked the guards away, and now Ronon and Teyla were creeping toward them, probably having just finished knocking out said guards and leaving them in the bushes. "Awesome, you made it," he said.
"Thanks to—" Teyla started. An expression of confusion passed over her face. Then her features smoothed out and she said, a little tentatively, "Thanks to you, Colonel."
John tried to smile back but it had hit him like a punch to the gut. For a second there, she hadn't recognized him. She had hesitated; Teyla, who knew him, who knew him—she had hesitated, thinking he might be Rodney.
"Yes, of course, and I've just been sitting on my ass this whole time." Rodney actually seemed in a better mood than John was, if—understandably—a bit twitchy and nervous. "Okay, is that all hooked up?" he asked, and John shook himself, made himself get back with the program. "Yeah."
"All right," Rodney rubbed his hands together, "I think that's it. I think I—" He stopped, turning to smile at John. John felt his emotions struggle with one another, and eventually that warm wash of faith and camaraderie—of brotherhood—drowned the rest. "I think we did it. We're ready to go!"
"There are still some prisoners lurking around the gate," Ronon said. "We're going to have to be fast."
"Okay." He saw Rodney suck in a breath. "Okay, you guys all go and I'll wait until the last minute and then join you."
John's head snapped up. "No way, McKay! We're not leaving you behind!"
"It's just as dangerous out there! You might be ambushed!"
"Yeah, and then Ronon will hit whoever ambushes us in the head! What are you going to do if you're here all by yourself?"
"Ideally, it'll be for less than two minutes, so, I don't know—maybe scratch off some of this mud that's caked in uncomfortable places?"
"Colonel—" Teyla started.
"I'll hose you down myself when we get back, but we're all leaving together and that's—"
"Uh, guys?" It was Eldon. "I think Torrell's going to be coming back like any second now, like really any second, we should really go—"
"Yes, please let us arrive at some decision!"
Okay, uh-oh, even Teyla looked pissed.
"All right," John turned back to the rest of them decisively, "Teyla, Ronon, you take Eldon back to the gate, get rid of anyone who might be in our way. I'll wait here with McKay and when it's clear we'll dial and be right behind you. If we don't make it," he added, in a lower tone, "at least you can send a rescue party."
Teyla still did not seem especially keen on this plan.
"Is that an order?" asked Ronon.
"Yes!" barked John.
They took off. "Well, that was entirely unnecessary," Rodney said.
John wheeled on him. "What's with the sudden self-sacrificing streak, McKay?"
He didn't even spare John a glance, just went over to the DHD and prepared to dial. "What, am I stealing your thunder? I'm not doing anything you wouldn't do! I'm not the one who volunteered to fly a jumper-bomb into a hive!"
"Yeah, but I didn't!"
"But you would have!"
"So you wouldn't have to!"
Rodney froze midway through the dialing sequence and turned to look at him. John wanted to flinch away from his gaze, but he felt pinned. He saw Rodney's flushed cheeks, streaked with dirt; he saw the rise and fall of his chest. He saw him shake his head.
"You don't have to protect me. I mean," he finished typing in the sequence, "not any more than the usual keeping-people-from-shooting-me-in-the-back thing." He glanced up again as he slammed his palm into the final button; distantly, John could hear the tell-tale whoosh. "I'm not your baby brother. We have to be equals in this."
"I thought you were above everyone," John said.
"Smarter doesn't always equal better." Rodney pointed a firm finger at him. "Do not tell anyone I said that."
John crossed his heart somewhat sarcastically.
"All right," Rodney said, looking away from him and back to the window. He gave John's arm a slap. "Last one there is a rotten egg!"
He took off, John hot on his heels and resisting the urge to yell, "Hey! You cheated!"
Along the way they passed a trio of unconscious people splayed out on the grass. Teyla, Ronon, and Eldon were waiting by the gate. "Go!" John shouted when he saw them. "Goddammit, go!"
They went, finally, disappearing into the shimmering sea of blue. Rodney, a few feet in front of him, hesitated before he reached it. John caught up with him and placed a hand on his back. Pushing him, they stumbled through together, into nothingness and then the familiar hum of the gateroom, clean and bright.
It took a few minutes to establish that Elizabeth and Lorne had actually come looking for them, which John appreciated. (Better late than never—only not really.) Once everything was straightened out, including Eldon being officially sent off to Carson for a medical check prior to being escorted to the guest quarters, the team tromped off gratefully to the locker room to remove what little remained of their gear, and to take some much-needed showers.
John was surprised but not delighted to see Lieutenant Cadman there—whether she was just coming out or had been waiting, she played it too casually for him to tell. Her eyes swiveled right past him and somehow, unfailingly, found Rodney. "Oooh, McKay, you're all dirty."
"I was just about to wash it off," said Rodney, hurriedly. John rolled his eyes. Did women really go for this innocent-earnest shtick?
Cadman grabbed Rodney's hand, swiping her thumb over his wrist, smudging the dirt. "Don't rush for my sake."
John saw Rodney finally get it; his eyes lit up in pure excitement, an expression John was pretty sure hadn't seen play on his own face since 1997.
"Are you sure?" Rodney had moved an arm to circle the Lieutenant's waist. "It's going to get everywhere..."
Cadman made a sound that—John would swear on the religious article of your choice—qualified as a squeal.
The long and short of it was, Rodney did not come into the locker room with the rest of them, but instead vanished with Cadman practically hanging off his sweaty, dirty back. Also, Teyla had to tap him on the shoulder twice to get him to pay attention before saying, "John. You're staring."
He took off his disgusting shirt and threw it against the locker.
Teyla, beside him, had draped herself gracefully and modestly in a fluffy beach towel bearing art from The Lion King. She reached up and pulled her hair out of its now somewhat grubby knot. "The two of you are both too stubborn for your own good."
There was no use in pretending he didn't know who she was talking about.
He looked down at his dirt-encrusted pants legs. "I, um. Sorry about the, you know." He glanced up and tried a smile. "You could just tell us to shut up?"
Teyla smiled thinly, rising with her towel like a pillar around her. "I shall keep that in mind."
John watched her leave, then went and showered off gratefully, relieved to get all that gunk out of his hair. He had a sore red mark on his neck and on his wrists from where they'd tied him, and strange creases on his fingertips. He realized, after a moment's reflection, that they must be from all those wires—the ones Rodney had handed him, that he had gripped so hard.
They worked so well together.
They were a fucking mess together.
Clean and scrubbed, he checked in with Elizabeth, then went down to the commissary and got something to eat, working through his plate of mashed...mash with gusto. At one point a pretty Indian scientist who John was eighty-seven percent sure was named Bryce or Rice or something sat down across from him and started babbling excitedly about something to do with fluxes and plate tectonics. John nodded enthusiastically and told her he thought she was right on and that he'd allocate more time and resources to her division immediately. When she left he still wasn't sure whether he was fucking with her or with Rodney.
Meal done, tray bussed, he started back to his quarters, trying to decide if he should do the logical thing, and get some sleep, or listen to his restless body's persistent nudges and burn off some still-billowing steam. It was no contest, really—dark, empty room or something to punch? He changed into his workout clothes and went down to the gym.
There were already puffs and pants coming from inside; John wasn't sure whether that was good or not, whether he would rather have someone else to hit (admittedly much more satisfying than a bag) or the time alone. But it looked like he wouldn't have the choice. The doors slid open and the friendly greeting he had planned froze on his lips.
Rodney, wearing virtually identical workout clothes, was standing in the corner, doing jumping jacks. He slowed, then stopped. "Oh, hey."
"What happened to Cadman?" John asked.
"Oh, I wore her out." Rodney grinned, smuttily. (John could remember his father yelling at him not to smile at people that way.) "I still have all this weird energy though." He bounced a little in place.
"So you're doing jumping jacks?"
"What's wrong with jumping jacks?"
John opened his mouth to explain.
"Oh," said Rodney, before he could. He tapped the side of his nose. "I get it. They're not cool." Rodney picked up a towel and wiped some of the sweat off his face. "So what would you do instead?"
John wasn't entirely sure why, but he said, "We could spar."
Rodney seemed to think about this for a moment. Then he said, much to John's surprise, "Okay."
John unwound his own towel and dropped it on the bench. He circled a little. He knew Rodney had had combat training—anyone who went off-world had to have combat training, and if John had his way, everyone in the city would at least have some, whether they intended to go off-world or not. But despite that, and in spite of the fact that he knew he and Rodney looked evenly matched, he knew they were really, really not.
It had surprised him, actually, that Rodney hadn't let his—that is to say, John's—body "go" more than he had—which was not much at all, really. His memories of Rodney before the change—which were, admittedly, fuzzy—showed someone who didn't get out much, who had the settled pudge of someone who didn't get out much, or work out much, or possibly care much. But he'd had strong shoulders, hadn't he? Or something, something that must have been there to make John think he had potential.
Was this that potential realized? This carbon copy, this echo—virtually the same, if slightly reduced? God, he'd even given up on cutting his hair, or wearing those weird zip-collar shirts, or those horrid khaki pants. If it weren't for the blue/black jackets they still wore, John sometimes wondered if anyone would be able to tell them apart without peering extra close to check for scars on the forehead or on the neck.
John couldn't wrap his mind around it—he had been plucked out of Antarctica to go on this mission at a time when he was the least wanted, the most alone, he'd ever been in his life. He'd come here expecting...well, right away, it hadn't been anything like he was expecting, not with the city humming under his skin, not with the Wraith nipping at their backs. But he'd come to expect, to understand, eventually, that he was with good people here, people he could rely on and who, for whatever sorry reasons, had come to rely on him. And he could handle that, mostly. Teammates he could handle. Even friends.
But he didn't want a brother. It was the lie that leapt to everyone's lips now: Kolya, and Chaya, and that stupid thug back in the prison colony. Even Rodney seemed willing to embrace it. But John just couldn't, couldn't accept the unbreakable ties the term implied.
He threw a punch at Rodney, and Rodney blocked it, if not quite as quickly and as well as John would have done. He grunted and pushed back, but John had weighted himself properly and didn't stumble. Rodney did, and it was only at the last second that John recognized it as a feint; he stepped back, away from the swipe, then moved up to meet Rodney's grapple. He finally managed to knock Rodney down but in doing so fell with him; Rodney let out a moan as John's elbow—accidentally! He'd swear!—jabbed into his chest. "Oh, you bastard," Rodney groaned, shoving hard with his shoulder and knee. They rolled, like boys, a notion that only crossed John's mind when he realized he had abandoned any pretext of fighting like a man, and, having wound his fingers into Rodney's sweaty locks, was pulling his hair.
Rodney had an equally childish grip on the front of John's shirt; he was the one pinned, technically, but he let his head (still tangled with John's fingers) fall back against the mat. He was laughing. His fingers slipped from John's shirt and he lay there and laughed. "I never—" he said, and then a hiccoughing wheeze covered the rest. (John really hoped he didn't sound like that when he laughed.) "Never—"
It was his own face John was staring at, slick with sweat and with tears of mirth squeezing out of his eyes. His own face, but John could sense Rodney behind it, and it wasn't wrong or repulsive or even vaguely icky. It was...kind of comforting, actually, because he could see himself laugh or smile or frown—there beside him, or across a room, or even as just a voice, crackly over the radio. He could see that or hear that and know, truly, that he wasn't alone.
They were stuck with each other, John realized; when Carson had tied John's genes to Rodney's it had been a more powerful bond than any of them could have imagined. And now it was unshakable. They'd proved it, today, in the jumper: neither one willing to run off and leave, not even for a second.
I don't know what to do with this, John thought, allowing Rodney to push him off, to make him fall flat on his back. But he was willing to try, he realized. He would try it, this weird mirror dance: pulling apart then snapping together, the two of them, like waltzing magnets. He'd give it a shot.
They lay there, side by side, and shook with the absurdity of it all.
"Do you trust me?" Rodney asked.
John said, "Of course."
John woke up feeling like someone had stomped on his head. There was a horrible echo bouncing around in there. His own voice, saying his name over and over. He groaned and sat up.
Two guards had him by the arms, leading him over to the cell, rucking that ridiculous white uniform up around his elbows as they pushed him forward. His hair was standing up at bizarre angles, and in the odd, soft light, he looked more than ever like John's mental image of himself, save for the slightly exaggerated swoop of scar tissue above his right eyebrow.
John pulled himself to his feet. "McKay?"
Rodney turned. "What are you doing in there?"
The guards pushed him inside. John raised an eyebrow.
"I was about to ask you the same thing."
There was something a little desperate in Rodney's eyes. "I came to help you."
The door slid shut, the forcefield reactivating with a quiet buzz. "Oh, I feel better already."
The words ended up carrying a nastier twist than he'd intended. He could still see the hurt expression on Rodney's face as he'd been helping John into the pod. Don't you trust me?
Well, he didn't. He couldn't. He'd learned that lesson the hard way.
"Why didn't you send Ronon or Teyla?" he asked now. "Didn't you think that, oh, two identical-looking people might make them suspicious? They probably think we're invading."
"It's not like they weren't already suspicious!" Rodney looked at John, then at the cell's four walls pointedly. "Besides, would Teyla or Ronon have been able to do this?"
He vanished. A second later, the door slid open. John was just about to take this implied invitation when the brig's outer door opened and the two guards walked in. They barely made it a few steps before they crumpled to the floor. Okay, that was kind of neat. John wasn't surprised that when Rodney reappeared, he looked smug.
John rolled his eyes. "Great, now we just need to get to the captain somehow without that damn first officer sneaking in and stunning me."
He bent over and relieved one of the guards of his weapon. Rodney knelt and took the other one. "This first officer—does he give off a certain Wraith-like vibe?"
"She. And why don't I like the sound of this?"
They crept out of the brig, Rodney's voice dropping to something resembling a whisper. "We found a Wraith in one of the pods. It's manipulating the neural feedback program."
John's nose wrinkled. He knew there'd been something fishy about the first officer—she'd been completely immune to his expert methods of persuasion. "Yeah, that sounds like her. She's got the captain under her thumb somehow."
Rodney nodded. "Right, okay. Well, we don't actually need the captain. I've been able to decipher enough of the program to override the protocols, so if we can get to a terminal inside the virtual environment, I should be able to access any file stored in the database."
"Sounds like a plan."
They crept along. Rodney kept tugging at his uniform collar uncomfortably. He paused and glanced back at John. "I have new sympathy for the children of obnoxious parents who think it's cute to dress their twins in identical clothes."
John refrained from pointing out that in their regular uniforms, the effect was much the same. Another thought had struck him: "Why do you look like this, anyway?"
Rodney blinked at him. "Now you want a recap?"
John ignored this. "I mean, what's the virtual re—the virtual environment basing our, um." He trusted the VE to hide his blush. "Our avatars on?"
Rodney was searching up and down yet another stretch of sterile white hallway, presumably looking for a terminal. "It probably scanned the pods," he said absently.
John shook his head. "No, because then all the Ancients would look, well, ancient—and the first officer would look like a Wraith!"
"Okay, maybe an initial scan then. The Wraith hacked around it." He shot John a glance over his shoulder. "Why are you suddenly interested in this?"
"I was just trying to figure out if there might be a mental component," John said honestly.
Rodney paused halfway through a step; John saw his eyes sweep over himself. After a moment: "No," he said simply. Then: "This way."
The terminal turned out to be a wash—the communiqué had been erased. John wasn't ready to give up on this, though. "Go unplug the Wraith while I go talk to the captain."
Rodney was looking at him again with that shaky vulnerable look on his face; it made John angry to see his features contorted like that. "Okay, so." Rodney uttered a weak laugh. He held out a fist to John. "Wonder twin powers activate?"
John just stared at him. Did he think this was funny? That everything would be all right again if he just kept smiling and snarking and making jokes?
Rodney's hand fell back to his side. "Right, well. Good luck." He vanished.
John looked at the empty space where he'd been for half a second. Then he turned and ran.
Rodney deposited the contents of what was essentially his Lantean toolkit on his desk and crawled back into bed. Inevitably, Laura stirred; she had a Marine's ability to go out like a light—and pop up again like a demented jack-in-the-box at the slightest disturbance. "Who fucked up this time?" she murmured.
Rodney sighed. "As much as I'd like to have a real, live person to blame...no one. There just aren't enough gene carriers to keep the city running properly, so things invariably break down." He glanced at the clock; he had to be up again in less than two hours. "Usually at the most inconvenient times."
She tugged at his arm until they were facing each other. "You don't think Doctor Beckett can be convinced to try the therapy again sometime soon?"
Rodney laughed, but without much humor. "This," he gestured briefly at himself, "freaked him out so much I think he's pretty much decided to leave all future genetic manipulation to nature—and/or misfiring Ancient equipment. So no."
Laura smiled coquettishly. "I could always try to persuade him..."
She was really truly horrifying sometimes—Rodney couldn't help liking her. But, "Ew! No, no—one, I don't even want to think about Carson getting some, ever, and especially not with my girlfriend! Two, that would just be mean; you know he has a crush on you. And three, I doubt the therapy would 'suddenly magically work,' so we'd just end up with an army of Sheppards on our hands. Believe me, nobody wants that."
Laura grinned. "Okay, one," she said, raising a slim finger that ended, somewhat incongruously, in a closely cropped nail, "why not? He has a very cute accent. Two—intriguing!" Her eyes glinted with mischief. "And three, I could see advantages to that. I mean," she reached out and ran those blunt nails slowly down his chest, "then I could have more than one of you to play with."
He was momentarily too distracted by what she was doing to respond. When he finally managed, he still sounded too hesitant, lacking the conviction he wanted to convey. "But that—they wouldn't be me."
She rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean."
A little more of the meaning behind what she was saying shook through. "No! I mean, there are two of this body walking around now! Do you want Sheppard," he made his lip twist, "to come 'play' with us?"
Laura's hand moved away. "Of course not." Rodney stared at her. "Okay, first of all he's my CO, and I like him, he's good. But come on. Sheppard's weird."
"That's not the point!" Rodney realized that his voice had risen to a much sharper pitch than he'd intended. "I mean, this isn't me, all right?" He touched his hand to his chest (Sheppard's hand, Sheppard's chest), then groped for Laura's fingers. "You do know this isn't me, don't you?"
"Of course," she said with ease.
Why did he suddenly not believe her?
He felt a surge of desperation. "Do you even know what I—" He swallowed the modifiers: 'used to,' 'really.' "—What I look like?"
She sighed and lay back against the pillow. "Does it really matter?"
"Yes!" It did, it did. Because he couldn't ask her, not the question he really wanted to—Would you still... But he could come close to finding out, in his own way.
He got out of bed, pulling boxer shorts back up over slim hips, and went to the desk. He dug in the bottom drawer where he was pretty sure it was, having lain there, useless, ever since he arrived. Closing his hand on it without looking, he turned and went back to the bed.
"There," he said, dropping the ID card on Laura's belly. "That's the man you're sleeping with."
She sat up, the muscles in her stomach drawing taut as she rose. Her perfect military body. Belatedly, he remembered that it was not the most flattering photograph; it had been taken in Antarctica and, as he too-slowly began to recall, in it he was wearing the orange fleece of much Sam Carter-sponsored scorn and a kind of deer-in-the-headlights expression common to ID photographs. Laura said nothing as she looked, as she slowly moved her thumb across his frozen, smiling, soon-to-be vanished face, then set the card face down on the night stand.
"So?" she said, which was not the worst possible answer.
It wasn't the best possible answer, either.
"That's me," Rodney said, but he'd lost the thread of the argument, whatever it once might have been. "That was me."
"You're here now," Laura said, reaching for him. "Come back to bed."
He could feel her kisses and the press of her fingers all across his borrowed skin. He closed his eyes and let himself feel it. Because in his mind's eye when he saw them, wasn't it always these two athletic bodies pressed together: John's stubble scraping against the soft skin of Laura's breasts, his dark hair mingling with her light—so beautiful. And where was he in all of this?
"You're right here," Laura said, "right here."
He tried very hard to believe her.
"Do you ever have those dreams?"
John stopped eating, surprised. Not only had Rodney suddenly sat down across from him—they hadn't been eating together much (or at all) lately outside of team meals—he had sat down posing what seemed to be an almost philosophical question. This was severely strange. John set his fork down and met Rodney's gaze, which appeared to be earnest. (Though with that face, it could be hard to tell.) "Of course. Those dreams."
Rodney waved away the sarcasm. "Dreams where you're at home, where everything that happens in the dream proceeds under the assumption that this is your home, and your dream-self recognizes it as such, but when you wake up, you realize that it wasn't your current house, or even the one that would make the most sense in context with the rest of the dream—which, admittedly, assumes that dreams display any sort of logic rather than being merely the useless vomiting of the subconscious mind; I think Freud was kind of cracked, don't you?—but anyway, the point is—"
"You have a point?" John stabbed a cherry tomato.
"The point is," said Rodney, with something almost resembling patience, "until recently, every time I had a dream that took place at 'home,' it was always set in the house where I grew up, this really ugly bungalow—Jeannie and I had to share a room, and there was only one bathroom, and the linoleum in the kitchen always felt weirdly sticky...I hated that house. But it was always that one, and not any of the dorm rooms or apartments or military bases I lived in later that would be home in my dreams. My stupid subconscious must have imprinted on it or something."
John still couldn't see where this was going, but found he was interested in spite of himself. There was some strange way in which he enjoyed it, just listening to Rodney talk—his bizarre digressions and tangents, the feeling they conveyed that even when he was talking about something utterly inane—dreams? WTF?—his mind was zipping along at speeds faster than the average mind could reach. It was kind of neat.
...Except for when that mind zipped them right off the edge of a cliff, of course. John couldn't afford to forget that.
"Anyway," Rodney said, picking at his own food, "not long after I came here, all of that stopped. I started dreaming of Atlantis. Even in dreams nominally about Earth, dreams where I couldn't find my cat or where math stopped making sense or where I was being chased by timber wolves around the kitchen table while wearing only socks—me, not the wolves—suddenly they were all in Atlantis. I was climbing over the balconies trying to find Longcat, I was being chased around the table in the conference room. I have dreams where my parents have screaming fights in the middle of the mess."
He glanced up, a little nervously, as if waiting to see John confirm or deny. "Yeah, me, too," he had to admit. He hadn't really thought about it, but it was true. He'd even had a dream where he'd been trying to carry Holland up from the sunken lower levels to the control tower. "Except for the thing about the timber wolves."
Rodney pressed on without responding to that. "But I'm still always me in those dreams," he said. He waited, as if making sure John had understood the full weight of what he'd said. "Or I was."
John stopped wanting to be part of this conversation, even a little bit.
But Rodney leaned across the table, pinning him with his gaze. "But I've started dreaming of myself as you, and it took me weeks to even notice. It's not every night, but..."
"Look, what do you want me to do?" John let his irritation boil over. "'I'm sorry I'm upsetting your R.E.M.'?"
Rodney shook his head. "No. No, the dreams are inconsequential, really. Just..." He paused, seeming to reevaluate and reconsider before plunging on. "During the day, could you try being less of an asshole maybe?"
John pushed back his chair and rose a little without even consciously thinking about it. "Excuse me?"
Rodney did not rise with him. His posture remained calm, almost leaden. "I know I screwed up," he said. "I know I screwed up so badly. But I think at this point I need to know if you're ever going to forgive me. 'Cause I'm not going to keep following around after you, picking up scraps!"
John stood the rest of the way, leaning over the table. "You're hardly in a position to be issuing ultimatums, McKay." He grabbed his tray. "I'm not talking about this here."
Of course, McKay followed him. "John!" he said, rounding the corner right behind him, "John."
John spun. "Don't call me that. Don't—" His decisive gesture died. "Just don't."
"You have to understand," Rodney said. "For whatever strange reason, this all makes more sense to me when we're on the same side!" John shook his head, feeling cowardly, and ducked into a transporter. Rodney was still there when he turned around. "When we're together I know who I am!"
"And who is that, Rodney?" John demanded. "Who—" The transporter doors reopened, revealing the same stretch of hallway they'd just left. John faltered. "Why is the transporter not working?"
Rodney rolled his eyes and pushed past John to a panel on the side wall. "It has to be reactivated. Don't you ever pay attention in briefings?"
"Oh, yeah." John crossed his arms and waited, sulkily—it would probably be too farcical now to insist on getting out and taking the stairs.
After a moment Rodney slammed the panel closed and straightened up. The doors slid shut again. John, having exhausted his initial spurt of fury, waited silently for them to reopen so he could make his escape.
They did not reopen.
"I think your 'fix-it' may have left something to be desired."
"Oh, I didn't fix it." He dismissed the notion with a wave. "I locked us in here, 'cause I figured it's the only way I'd get you to talk."
"I locked us in here." Oh, now he had learned to stay calm.
"This is not funny, McKay!"
"Did I say it was funny? I'm being perfectly serious!"
They glared, then stared, then looked away.
"All right, I forgive you," John said finally, eyes on his shoes.
Rodney scoffed. "Oh, very convincing."
He let out a growl of frustration that faded into a sigh. "I can't recalibrate my emotions to your convenience, Rodney. The universe doesn't work like that." The look he shot Rodney was entirely lacking in pity. "As you so cleverly and thoroughly proved."
"And you were right there with me!" Rodney said. "Is that what's bothering you so much? That you went along, that you trusted me, and I didn't even have to work that hard to persuade you?"
John said nothing.
"Look, I know I was wrong then, but I'm right now. You wanted to believe in me—like I believe in you, John, even when you are suicidal and crazy—and I don't see why that has to be such a bad thing!"
"Rodney. In order to have this conversation, you locked me in a transporter."
"Like you would have sat and listened any other way!"
"I might have!"
Another scoff. "Please. I know you."
John snorted and looked away. "No you don't."
"I'd like to." Rodney's voice had gone disturbingly soft. He tried to laugh. "You realize I'm essentially a dead man. I have no face, no name. I don't know if I'll ever be allowed to see my sister again, and she doesn't even like me that much. John," he reached out a hand, then let it fall short. "You're the only family I have."
John sighed and shook his head. "You're too smart for this, Rodney." Why couldn't he see that this was the last thing he wanted to ask for? Not to mention something John absolutely couldn't give.
"All right." John looked up, surprised that Rodney wasn't pressing it. "I just wanted you to know."
John opened his mouth, but Rodney had turned back to the control panel. "There you go."
The doors opened.
John paused for half a second before walking out quickly, and not turning back.
"I'll go," Sheppard said.
Rodney put his hands on his hips. "Why? If there's Ancient technology in there, doesn't it make more sense for me to go?"
"If something goes wrong," Sheppard countered in his irritating little whine, "doesn't it make sense to have you outside so you can—" He rolled his eyes—actually rolled his eyes! "—Rescue me?"
Rodney caught the tail end of Teyla and Ronon exchanging a look. "How 'bout I go," Ronon said.
"I would also be happy to go," said Teyla.
"What is wrong with you people?" Sheppard pushed past their little cluster and over to the energy barrier. "I already said I'd go!"
Without another word, he thrust his hand in.
Rodney sighed and put down his camera. "So?"
"Uh, it's weird." Sheppard made a face. "And it's kind of hurting my hand a little."
"Okay, so get out of there!"
"I'm trying to!" And oh god, he really was starting to struggle. "It's pulling me in."
Rodney scrambled up almost instantly but Ronon and Teyla still beat him. They grabbed hold of Sheppard's vest and started to pull.
"I got you."
"We've got you!"
Rodney pulled. If anything, though, the force field seemed to be making a mockery of their efforts, sucking Sheppard further in for all the energy they expended tugging him away. "Come on, guys, get me out of here!"
Rodney was pressed up against Sheppard's back and every second he could feel him receding. His stomach twisted with panic. "This shouldn't be happening!"
"Well, it is! It's pulling me in!"
He felt like his arms were going to fall off. He heard Teyla gasp. "It's too strong!"
Sheppard's face was against it now, the barrier rippling and sucking, shiny silver mirror surface swallowing him whole. "No!" Rodney yelled. But it was too late. It had him.
"Don't touch the barrier!" Rodney gasped out, falling back. Ronon and Teyla pulled their hands back at the last second. John vanished. "Oh god, okay."
"Why did you stop?" Ronon demanded.
"'Cause otherwise we'd have been pulled in, and we need to figure out how to get him out of there. Now shut up!"
Ronon raised an eyebrow. "Rodney..." said Teyla. "We are all—"
"I'm not kidding!"
He scrambled on the ground, nearly kicking his video camera before he got a grip on it. He rewound, frantically; there must have been something that he missed—
As he listened to Teyla radioing John uselessly, the tape rewound and rewound and rewound...
At first he thought he had started hallucinating, which with the invisible beastie and months of forced meditation behind him didn't seem too far outside the realm of possibility. But there was Ronon, sword out, ready to fend it off; and Teyla, with her knife; and even Elizabeth and Carson. And Rodney.
John's heart performed an uncomfortable maneuver in his chest as the beast vanished beneath him and he tumbled to the ground.
"John!" Yes, Rodney was there, helping him to his feet, their clasped arms entirely equidistant from wrist to elbow. He stood, and their eyes met, perfectly level. There was something fragile in Rodney's. "How long?" he whispered.
"Six months, I think. I sort of lost track. What the hell happened?"
"Time dilation field. I'm so sorry..."
John blinked at him. "You mean it's only been..."
"Just a few hours, believe it or not," Elizabeth said. John turned, remembering that the rest of them were there. "The beard is interesting," she added, smiling a little.
Before John could respond, "The creature is still close," announced Teyla. Her point was driven home by another roar.
John tried to refocus on the fight, but he couldn't fully shake his renewed awareness of Rodney's presence; he was almost shaking with it. After months and months—finally, like a piece of him had been restored...
The creature phased into existence again and they moved forward as a group to attack. Then suddenly Teer and Avrid and Hedda and Allan were there. "We've come to fight," said Teer.
Then they apparently made the monster vanish with their brains, which John thought was a) typical, and b) kind of cheating. This was followed by a mass Ascension, and yeah, John was pretty glad he'd never actually drunk the Kool-Aid.
He let his teammates lead him back through the suddenly-accommodating barrier, Rodney's fingertips on his arm like hot coals burning into his skin. "Elizabeth's right about the beard," Rodney said softly. "You keep that, nobody will have any trouble telling us apart."
"I'm shaving it off as soon as we get home," John said decisively. He touched his shoulder lightly to Rodney's, and together they walked into the wormhole that would take them there.
He and John were both beginning to wheeze. "Slowpokes," Ronon said, turning and running backwards for a few steps.
"Hey, Ronon," said Rodney, in the space of a carefully regulated breath. "Ever heard the story about the tortoise and the hare?"
"What's a tortoise?" Ronon called. He continued over the crest of the bridge, doing several triumphant and mocking spins.
John laughed. "You know," said Rodney, panting along at his side, "you should have never asked me to run with you guys. I had assumed you were good at it!"
"No worse than you!" said John.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, like being evenly matched with you is such a challenge."
"Hey!" said John, grinning. He put on an extra burst of speed.
Rodney launched himself after him. "Hey yourself!"
Somehow, something went terribly wrong, and they ended up tangling their feet together. "Ow," said Rodney.
Ronon jogged back just to laugh at them a lot.
Rodney was allowing John to help him to his feet when his radio buzzed. "What?"
It was Chuck. "The console is blinking."
"That big red light that we don't know the significance of is blinking."
Rodney swore creatively. "All right, I'm on my way. But just so you know, Sheppard and Ronon have made me very sweaty!"
Chuck did a poor job hiding his laugh before signing off.
"What now?" John asked.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Chuck probably leaned his elbow on something he shouldn't have and now the control room console is being 'ominous.'" He accepted the water bottle from John and took a good glug. "I'll catch up with you guys later."
"No, you won't," said Ronon.
Figuring that the chances that the control tower was about to explode were minimal, Rodney stopped off at his quarters and allowed himself a two minute shower before changing into a clean uniform and proceeding quickly to the control room. Chuck had scooted a few feet away from the offending red light and was pointing at it like a frightened priest before a collection of scrawled pentagrams and 666s. "This thing has more warning lights than a disgruntled TARDIS," Rodney groused, taking off his uniform jacket. He draped it over a chair and slid under the console. Which was how he discovered first hand what the unauthorized gate activity klaxon sounds like when your ear is pressed right up against it.
"Fucking—" He crawled back out, holding his head.
"Unauthorized offworld activation," said Chuck, mechanically.
"Sorry, it's a reflex." Chuck nodded as Elizabeth came into the room, barely even acknowledging the fact that Rodney was clutching his ears and cursing. "Major Lorne's team is the only one that's out," he confirmed, before she could ask.
"He's not due to check in for another two hours, correct?"
"That's ri—hold on, I'm getting—" Chuck raised his head and looked straight at Rodney. "It's Doctor McKay's IDC."
"Oh, so it's one of those days," Rodney said. He and John were going to play golf later, dammit.
"Radio Colonel Sheppard, and get a squad of Marines to cover the gate. Then lower the shield."
"I love that SGC actually has protocol for these types of situations," Rodney pointed out.
Elizabeth raised a wry eyebrow and did not disagree.
The Marines moved into position around the gate, and at Elizabeth's signal the shield disappeared like a cloud. Rodney leaned forward, curiosity overriding apprehension.
Ronon strode through the wormhole—not his Ronon, Rodney knew, though at least from this distance he couldn't see any difference, aside from a white bandage wound around his left shoulder. The Satedan looked wary: he had his hand a respectable distance away from his gun, though Rodney knew that if he was anything like their version of Ronon, he could probably outdraw all the Marines who already had finger to trigger. He kept his hands in a peaceable, placating position, however, and glanced over his shoulder just as a second man came through the gate. The wormhole shut down behind him.
In the silence that followed, the man's voice seemed very loud. "Hi, hi, sorry to bother you. We're from an alternate universe—which, well, I'm sure you've already figured out. Anyway, we're in a bit of a pickle—sort of 'lost in space,' if you will—and since you all seem to be doing much better—I mean, not to presume, the Wraith could be bearing down on you for all I know, but ah..." He managed to tear his eyes away from the guns, to pause and glance up. "Elizabeth!" he said, sounding relieved. "See, you are, you really are doing much better than we are at the moment, so I know this is kind of a strange request, but you know, we'd do the same for you, because, well. You're us."
The Marines didn't move. Neither did Elizabeth. Rodney swallowed. The man standing in the middle of the gateroom looked small and hunched.
"I mean, you are, right? Elizabeth?" His eyes found Rodney. "Sheppard?"
"Rodney," Elizabeth said, and she couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice. "It's good to...see you."
"You, too!" said the stranger, genuinely. "On your feet—I mean, er." He looked back and forth between them, read the shock on both their faces—the shock directed at his appearance. "Oh, no," he said. "This is a universe where I died, isn't it?" He swallowed hard, then in a small voice asked, "Did I drown?"
Rodney shivered, and that broke him out of his trance. "So what mess did you get yourselves into?" He moved toward the stairs.
"Well, it's kind of a long story, but basically—"
"We need a ZPM," Ronon interrupted.
"Oh, and you think we just hand those out like cupcakes?" Rodney asked. He'd gotten to the bottom of the steps and then stopped. It felt too strange to move any closer, to get sucked into the orbit of those familiar, forgotten blue eyes.
"Look," the eyes widened, became pleading, "I don't know what your universe has been through; I'm sure it's been awful, but if we don't get some help now, everyone in our Atlantis is going to die."
Rodney realized that he was still staring more than offering any kind of productive contribution to the conversation—a Sure, we'll help or even a Hi. I'm you. He couldn't help it. The—true him? the old him?—the other him seemed to take it as a refusal; he kept talking.
"Listen, for reasons that really don't need exploring at this juncture, we activated our star drive, but we didn't have enough power, and now we're floating through space and rapidly running out of air. I realized that the only gate we could dial was our own, so this is our, you know." He smiled weakly. "Our Hail Mary."
He thought he was talking to John, Rodney realized; of course he did. And then he thought: Oh, shit—John, which was of course right when the man himself came racing into the control room, having finally made it halfway across the city.
"What have we here?"
John was out of breath, but doing a fairly good job, he thought, of not showing it. A transporter had broken on E level, and since the transporters needed someone with the gene to activate them to accept repairs, it was stuck on the long list of things that either Rodney or Miko or one of the few other scientists with the ATA gene had to take care of. Maybe Rodney was right. Maybe they should resume training the ATA-positive military personnel in basic city maintenance. After all, they'd trained all the scientists with the ATA gene to fly the jumpers.
He took a deep breath and, following the quiet nod of Chuck's head, crossed the control tower and looked out on the gateroom. "What have we here?" he asked.
Everyone save the Marines swiveled to look at him. He himself paused to look more closely—how did Ronon get...? Oh, okay, right—alternate universe shenanigans; he'd heard this sometimes happened. Alt-Ronon didn't seem to have any more facial hair than usual, though, and their other visitor was clean-shaven, so...
Their other visitor...
John's heart stuttered in his chest as he recognized him—that face he barely knew, that he hadn't seen in more than three years. He'd forgotten what he looked like—forgotten, almost, that he'd ever been anything other than John's mirror image, his other half. You can get used to anything, he thought, but he couldn't see himself ever getting used to those broad shoulders, that wide mouth, those bright blue eyes... His heart thudded into action again, pumping blood into places it had no business going.
Luckily, before John could ruminate too much on this new, unexpected problem, another one threw itself into his path. Ronon had caught sight of him. Instantly, his shoulders stiffened and his hands moved toward his gun. He mouthed something at—at his version of Rodney, who nodded and started backing away from Rodney and Elizabeth. "Actually, never mind, it's okay, we'll just try somewhere else—"
"April Bingham!" John's Rodney blurted.
The other paused. "What?"
"The first girl I—we—kissed. From Algebra Club? Cute blonde, gave us mono? Shut up, Sheppard!" Rodney added, anticipating John's snicker. He looked back to the pair of visitors from another world. Ronon looked like he was still calculating how many Marines he'd be able to take down before any of them got a shot off. The other Rodney looked like he was thinking, hard. "So, see, I'm McKay," Rodney continued, "and that's Sheppard," he pointed, "and we're really us, and not replicators or a clone army or whatever else you're thinking."
That large, expressive mouth—that amazing mouth John had somehow forgotten—was still twisted down into a frown. "Did you chicken out and not let Carson give you the gene therapy?" his Rodney pressed. "That was probably a good move, because as you can see, he didn't really offer a clear picture of the side effects."
The alternate Rodney tensed again. "I did have the gene therapy," he said. "It worked perfectly." He pulled a life signs detector out of his pocket and activated it easily.
Rodney's whole demeanor changed. "What? Oh, that is so not fair." He turned to Elizabeth. "Why did we get stuck with the incompetent Carson, huh?"
The other Rodney blanched, but John's Rodney turned back too late to catch it. "We have three ZPMs now. I suppose we can spare one, although it'll mean the city will be running at far from optimal levels, and with the maintenance difficulties we're already having—"
"All right, look, I'll come back and help you with all of that," said the other Rodney, regaining some of his composure, "you know, right after I've made sure that everyone in my city can still breathe?"
His Rodney harrumphed; John could see it now, the expression as it would transfer onto the other face. He felt...again, a rush of, of— He shivered and turned away.
When he glanced back, Rodney was staring up at him, his dark hair falling into his eyes. John reached up to brush his own bangs out of the way, and Rodney—unconsciously, John suspected—mirrored him. "So, do we trust them sufficiently? Should I go be generous with our carefully collected power sources, or are we going to keep going with the High Noon thing?"
Elizabeth answered for him. "We always welcome new allies, even if they're—well, us."
"Thank you," said the other Rodney, rolling his eyes. The gesture seemed perfunctory. He went back to eying his other self—what to him, John realized, must look like a stranger who knew his secrets—immediately.
Ronon paused as he passed Elizabeth, his lips parting like he wanted to say something. Unsurprisingly, they closed again, and he moved on.
John nodded to a few of the Marines, and they followed after the strange little party. Then he went down to meet Elizabeth.
"So," he said. He managed to fit a lot of meaning into that one little word.
Elizabeth did the same with her "Indeed." Then she elaborated: "Once they're gone, we're going to discuss how we're going to handle situations like this in the future. As much as I dislike the thought of other versions of this city in peril, we can't have a policy of giving out essential parts of our operating system to any familiar face who comes through the gate."
"Or not so familiar," John pointed out. Elizabeth bit her lip.
"I don't think Rodney's just feeling neighborly," he added. "I think he thinks we'll be able to get something out of this." Elizabeth still looked hesitant. "Want me to go keep on eye on him—on them?"
She nodded. "I think that might be wise."
John thought so, too—while on another level, he was terrified at the thought of having to look into the other Rodney's eyes again. But he pushed that feeling down. He wanted to stand by his Rodney, present a united front. They were so good at it now: shoulder to shoulder, as natural as breathing.
He found them in the ZPM chamber. His Rodney was just handing one of the modules over to the other Rodney; he paused in lamenting his own generosity to meet John's eyes as he came in the room. John hadn't said anything yet, or made a sound; even Ronon seemed unaware of his presence until Rodney looked up. John realized anew how scarily in tune they were; he could feel the steady beat of his heart and know that Rodney's pulse matched it.
He shook his head, though his eyes stayed with Rodney's a moment too long. "You look like you're forfeiting your only child," he said. He moved to stand beside him; their shoulders touched lightly. John felt disturbingly reassured. He felt powerful.
The other Rodney had eyes only for the ZPM, and from his few halting glances in that direction, John sensed that he wasn't too eager to start searching for another version of his mind behind what he probably thought of as solely Sheppard's eyes. Ronon, however, was openly staring at them. John stared back, defiant, weirdly defensive; then Ronon elbowed his Rodney and said, not quietly, "What was that movie Sheppard made us watch? The Shining?"
Being jostled just made Rodney clutch the ZPM tighter, but he nodded and said, "Yes, yes, who could forget you and the Colonel channeling high-pitched voices through your fingers for days afterward?"
Ronon nudged him again. This time he glanced up to glare, caught a new glimpse of John and his Rodney standing side by side and started. His eyes went wide and John once again felt a pull: he didn't want to move from this spot and yet he wanted to reach out and—
"Yes, well, our Atlantis' breathable atmosphere is becoming ever more depleted as we speak; sorry to appropriate a power source and run, but we really must—"
"I already have Radek configuring the gate to create an inter-dimensional bridge," Rodney said. He seemed coolly competent compared to his counterpart, which was not something John ever thought he'd say. At least not the cool part. "Do you have a way of making sure we connect to your universe and not to an Atlantis where the Wraith have taken over, or everyone speaks Welsh, or...?" He trailed off, apparently considering the Welsh possibility more than frightening enough to make his point.
"No," said the other Rodney, sarcastically. "I thought we'd just click our heels together and say, 'There's no place like—'"
He stopped, suddenly, and took another long, hard look at them. Then he coughed. "Yes, I came up with something." He started out of the room, cradling the ZPM against his chest. "C'mon, Ronon."
Ronon's eyes swept over them one more time as they made their way to the door, once again trailing Marines like ducklings. "We thought Atlantis was haunted for a while," he remarked, conversationally. "Turned out it was whales."
"Oh, yes, the whales." Rodney nodded. "We had fun with that, too. Zelenka even bonded with one of them. He seems to think it's a pet."
The other Rodney shot a twitchy glance over his shoulder, but he didn't say anything else until they reached the control tower.
Once there, Rodney reluctantly passed the ZPM over to Ronon and started hooking up his homing device while Zelenka and John's Rodney looked on with interest. It seemed to make the other Rodney uncomfortable to have his counterpart leaning over his shoulder; his explanation was more stuttery, less confident than John would have expected. When they were done, he stepped back and gratefully reclaimed the ZPM. "That should work," he said, looking to Elizabeth.
She gave a nod. "Dial the gate."
Chuck initiated the sequence. Glancing around, John realized that the two Rodneys had unintentionally fallen into place beside each other. John felt another strange stirring in his stomach, watching them eye each other. His mind summoned an old memory: standing in front of a department store window at Christmas and being so astounded by the riches that lay within that he couldn't even begin to articulate what it was he might want.
The other Rodney shifted his stance. "So," he mumbled, so low that John barely caught it. "It must be nice being, uh. Taller?"
His Rodney shrugged. "I wouldn't wish this hair on anybody," he said, catching John's eye. The corner of his mouth twitched, and John felt his own respond.
The other Rodney nodded, looking relieved. "Well, no. Of course not."
The wormhole engaged, blossoming dramatically. "I should radio to make sure," Rodney said, looking for Elizabeth's approval even as he moved toward the button. "Atlantis, this is McKay—"
"Rodney, it's about time!" came his own voice, slightly scratchy from interference. John automatically looked to his Rodney, like he might be the source of the sound; when was the last time he had reacted normally to an echo? "Tell me the nice alternate us-es were kind enough to offer us a little loan..."
Elizabeth moved to speak into the mic. "We're happy to do what we can, Colonel," she said. "After all, if we can't be allies with ourselves..."
"Elizabeth!" said the other Sheppard. "It's...it's great to hear your voice."
There was something about his tone that made John frown. Elizabeth seemed to sense it, too. "I hope when you're through with this crisis we can attempt to exchange information that would be of use to us both," she said, firmly but politely.
"Of course!" came the reply. "But as much as I'd like to chat more now, we're kind of running out of air over here, so..."
Elizabeth nodded. "Good luck to you."
She pulled her finger off the switch and turned to Rodney and Ronon. "And to you." She shook their hands, Rodney's somewhat awkwardly because of his grip on the ZPM. "We hope to see you again, hopefully under better circumstances."
"Sure," said Rodney, "I don't see why more people don't just pop over to the nearest parallel universe for tea."
John frowned a little at the comment, which he thought was kind of dismissive, considering that they'd just given him one of their ZPMs. But then he saw the Rodneys exchange a look; "Thank you," said the other Rodney, nodding once at his counterpart before disappearing through the gate. The wormhole shut down behind him, closing like one wide, blue eye.
Elizabeth sighed into the silence that followed. "Why do I feel like I just lent my rent money to Danny Ocean?"
Rodney shook his head, chasing away the wry comment John was about to make. "I think they'll come back," he said, glancing at John briefly and then looking away. "He told me he thought he knew a safe way to make the gene therapy work for us."
That would be worth a ZPM, was what he left implied. And something else. John could see it in the deliberate line of Rodney's shoulders. His eyes never left Rodney's back as he walked from the room.
Rodney went to his quarters and sat down on the edge of the bed. Almost immediately he was standing up again. He paced over to the desk and picked up the laptop he had left there. He paced back over to the bed and opened the laptop. He scrolled through a series of equations he'd been working on. It was soothing work. Relaxing. He scrolled for a few more seconds. A pause. Then he slammed the laptop shut and tossed it on the bed. "Fuck," he said emphatically. He stalked out the door.
Ronon—his Ronon—was in the gym, which was good. Rodney was in the mood to get his ass kicked—as much as you could ever be in the mood for that, but since Rodney was most certainly not a masochist, he had to assume there was more than masochism involved in his not infrequent desire to let Ronon beat the crap out of him. In a weird way, he found it cleared his head—something he would have never thought possible if... Well, if a lot of things.
"Hey," he said. Ronon was still working out with the bag, so he must have just gotten there. "You missed a lot of excitement," he said. "Don't tell me you had no interest at all in seeing an alternate version of yourself traipse around the city?"
"I snuck a peek," Ronon admitted, stilling the bag. "Seemed the same."
"Some things are universal, apparently," Rodney said. He shrugged off his jacket, pausing as his knuckles scraped over the Canadian flag patch. "So..." he said casually. "When you were sneaking around, spying on yourself...did you see me as well? I mean." He concentrated on stretching out his shoulders. "The other me."
"Yeah." Ronon turned and looked at him, his face frustratingly inscrutable. "So that's what you really look like."
Rodney felt himself frown. "I suppose so."
Ronon looked briefly pensive before moving into his initial "please, allow me to beat you up" stance. "You're a bit shorter than I thought."
"Says Paul Bunyan," Rodney snapped back. He raised his arm just in time to prevent getting smacked across the skull.
He could feel the blow vibrating through his radius. It felt good.
When Ronon was done with him, he felt even better, if also sweaty and sore. He went back to his room and stepped gratefully under the shower spray. His movements were instinctual, routine: working the shampoo into his hair; soaping over his chest and his arms and between his legs. He kept his mind studiously blank—or as blank as it ever was for him, which was not very; he wasn't good at blank, favoring instead an endless stream of thoughts and ideas, bouncing around his brain like atoms in a particle accelerator. He let the water wash the soap from his body and allowed all the other thoughts to pound the one he didn't want to think about to dust.
Then he stepped out of the shower and casually wiped the mist from the mirror.
His face stared back at him. But it wasn't his face. That, earlier today—that had been the real him. This was...a lie he had got very good at telling, over the past three years. He'd even convinced himself it was true. This is me. Sheppard's equal. John's brother.
He frowned and looked away, summoning water to the basin. He splashed some on his face, a cold smack. It didn't work nearly as well as the sudden sound of the door chime.
He grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist, pushing wet, unruly hair back up over his forehead. It was John. He knew it was John. There was only the barest need for modesty with him. After all, never had the phrase Nothing you haven't seen before been more true.
He opened the door and stepped back. "Wonderful timing, as always."
"Sorry," Sheppard said. He didn't sound very apologetic. Rodney could feel his eyes on his bare back as he shut the door. The gaze felt headier than usual, but perhaps Rodney was just feeling twitchy; when he turned around John looked perfectly calm, his arms folded across his chest. "There's something you're not telling me."
Rodney tried to hide his pause by scratching his ear. "About April Bingham?" he tried. "She was a hot blonde, what can I say? I know some people claim not to have a type, but I—I really have a type, and April—"
"What?" John looked at him. "Yeah, okay."
He went and sat down on the edge of the bed. His hands moved itchily across his terry-clothed knees. "The, uh. The other me. He told me—he thinks he knows a way to switch me back." To fix me, he was going to say, but couldn't, quite.
"Oh," said John. He stepped back a couple paces, leaned against the desk. "Well, that...that's good."
"Yeah," said Rodney, with what he hoped was a casual shake of his head, a wave of his hand. "It'll be...a relief to be myself again." Though strange to think the other Rodney had come up with a solution so quickly, when he himself... He stared at his feet, at the second toe that was longer than the first. "And I'll still have the gene," he added, attempting a glance up, "because this device they found in the other universe, it involves using a baseline sample of DNA, so we can use the other McKay's. The therapy worked for him. The way it was supposed to."
"Right." John's gaze was steady, but Rodney could practically feel him thinking. "No, this is good, Rodney," he said suddenly. "I think this'll be really, really good." A smile cracked across his face like a sunrise.
Rodney felt a weird tightening in his chest. He got up and moved quickly to the closet, grabbing a shirt and pulling it on. "Of course," he said, as the fabric covered his face. "I'm sure you'll enjoy not having to—to share anymore—"
The neckline cleared his nose and he turned to find John standing there, tight at his elbow. "Rodney, you know that I— That I—"
He managed a nod. "We're brothers," he said hollowly.
John's expression turned sharply into a frown. "No! We're not, really. You know that we're not really brothers!"
Rodney's stomach clenched again. "All right!" he scowled. "I know, I get it! This wasn't something I asked for either, but not to worry, your ordeal will be ending soon enough! You know, assuming everyone in the alternate universe doesn't die."
"They're not going to die," John said.
"No, of course not!" said Rodney. "Because then you'd be stuck with me like this forever! The persistent shadow following you around! The annoying younger sibling nipping at—"
His lips. John's mouth was suddenly there, moving against him, kissing him in a manner that was in no way brotherly. His thumb brushed across Rodney's throat, under his ear; Rodney could see the answering spot on John's neck, only his was scarred and slightly puckered from where the Iratus bug had gotten him. Vive le difference! he thought wildly, and then sense returned to his brain like a lightning bolt, and he hastily pushed John away.
"What are you doing?" He didn't like the way his voice sounded, whiny and desperate.
"I—" John had dropped his hand down to Rodney's shoulder. "I never had a brother—"
"I'm thinking it was a good thing you didn't!"
"Rodney." His thumb moved across Rodney's clavicle; Rodney couldn't figure out why he wasn't pushing him away.
"So I never knew that what I was feeling wasn't—" John swallowed. "I've never trusted anyone, either, or, or cared for them like—" He grit his teeth and turned away. "You know what I'm trying to say!"
"No," said Rodney. But he did, kind of. That was the freaky part.
"And then I saw you," continued John, who knew how to read that 'no,' who knew how to read Rodney better than anyone, "earlier today, I saw you without having to look at myself. And I realized—we don't have to give this up if you change back. We don't have to give it up. We can have something better."
Rodney knew he had to say something. He started to, but it came out a wordless exhalation. It was too much, too much to take in, and he would have sunk to the floor, he thought, were he and John not still gripping each other like Roman centurions, were they not holding each other up.
"I— I don't know what you're saying," he said finally, desperately, drawing away. "And if you've confused me, you must really not be making any sense, because I. I—"
"I want you," said John.
Rodney looked at him. He was holding himself very still. It had taken effort to say that; this whole conversation was costing him so much, and yet Rodney couldn't—he just couldn't make it stop or give John what he wanted, whatever the hell he wanted, because—
"How can you say that? How can you know that?" Rodney hated the sound of his voice—like a plea. "I don't even know who I am anymore, so how can you say that you want me? Who do you want? What does that mean?"
"Rodney." John looked halfway between laughing and banging his head against the wall. "You're the most....you person I've ever met. You're brilliant and brash, and I—god, I admire you so much. For being sure."
Rodney didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted. Could John really have missed all his self-doubt? Or did he just somehow...see past it? How could he—how could they— No, no—he had to stop this; it was just too much.
"Admiration isn't—isn't desire," he said, changing his mind at the last minute. "I know it seems that way, sometimes, like when someone publishes a really good paper—" John raised an eyebrow. "—Or, or throws a football really well. I mean, you're not in love with Doug Flutie, are you?" In his addled state, Rodney finally seized on what he knew should have been his central point. "You're not even gay!"
Rodney saw John's teeth move over slightly to bite the edge of his lip.
"What?" Rodney threw his hands in the air. "How could you never tell me? I thought we were—oh christ! It's a genetic trait, isn't it? No wonder Laura and I broke up!" He blinked, suddenly, and looked aside. "And no wonder I enjoy working out with Ronon so much..."
He turned back. John wasn't looking at him anymore. His face looked slightly flushed. "Look, I—" He shook his head. "Never mind. Sorry I said anything. It must be..." He seemed to force a laugh. "...Misplaced vanity." He looked up again and his expression was blank. "Realized I was running out of time to experience masturbation with another person. Stupid. Should probably just go jerk off in front of a mirror."
He moved toward the door like he intended to follow through on this promise immediately.
There had been a time when Rodney liked to think he weighed every action carefully, when every decision he made was painstakingly thought-through. He was a creature of reason, after all. Impulse and sudden action—those were qualities that belonged to men like Sheppard. Men who were willing to risk themselves even if it meant they could wind up hurt.
He reached John when he was halfway out the door. His hand closed around the warm skin of John's arm just as it crossed the threshold, like Rodney was reaching into a mirror and pulling him back. He pulled hard and they almost overbalanced; Rodney felt his back hit the wall and John fall forward against him. The moment was a terrifying one. Rodney opened his mouth to try to offer some line of reasoning, an explanation, but instead he pulled John to him and kissed him again and again. "There's no one else," he said, "I would have gone crazy if it had been anybody but you. Don't you know that? Aren't you smart enough to know that?"
John's arms encircled him. "I know."
The door slid shut behind them.
"Is this weird?" Rodney asked.
He was standing naked in front of John, shirt removed almost as soon as it was donned, the towel having slipped off with an easy jerk of his thumb. John was still fully clothed, though Rodney had pulled his shirt away from his collar bone and was making hopeful movements in the direction of his fly.
"It's a little, uh." Rodney paused and John was confronted with the sight of his own eyes staring back at him. He let his eyelids flutter shut. "Just keep talking," he said. "If you keep talking, I'll know it's you."
"I'm finding the whole gay thing surprisingly easy to handle," Rodney commented, presumably in response. "That may be in part your DNA. Your gay DNA." John could sense his grin; he cuffed him lightly. "And maybe also," John felt Rodney's hands slide down his sides, over his hips, "it's that you're just so. ridiculously. beautiful."
He couldn't help it: he opened his eyes. Rodney was kneeling in front of him, kneeling naked in front of him, and it was erotic, seeing himself like that, knowing it was really Rodney behind every touch, every gesture, the dark longing look in his eyes.
"I was jealous of you." Rodney's voice was low. "There, I can admit it. In Antarctica. It was cold and uncomfortable and Sam still wouldn't sleep with me—she said my cold weather gear made me look like the Michelin Man, can you believe it?—and to make things worse, my second ATA test had just come back negative. And then you come in—you, all cocky and tall and handsome, fresh from saving General O'Neill's life. And of course the second you sat in the chair you lit it up like you were the heat at the center of the sun."
He took a shaky breath, staring up at John from a position that should have seemed submissive but didn't. "I hated you," he breathed. "You were everything I wasn't."
He leaned forward, then, and nuzzled against John's cock.
John sucked in a breath. His hands fluttered like dying butterflies above Rodney's skull. His hair was standing up at all angles, and John had to fight off a desperate desire to smooth it down, to change it, make it different and distinct, as even Rodney had ceased doing after the first few weeks following his transformation. John's cock strained against his BDUs as Rodney continued to mouth it through the fabric, eager but inexpert explorations. It certainly seemed unconflicted. Unlike John, who'd never actually been that good at knowing what he wanted—or letting himself have it.
"Everything I'm not," Rodney whispered, leaving fingerprints with his thumbs.
John squeezed shut his eyes again. "Wait," he said.
He felt Rodney's shoulders stiffen. John touched his cheek, drew him up. "I want to save that," he said. They stood face to face, eye to eye—one naked and one clothed, and yet equally vulnerable. "For when you're you again."
John knew that quizzical eyebrow lift all too well. "You're sure. You're sure I'm not blowing—okay, bad choice of words, but seriously. I'm not losing my only chance here? You don't really want—" He gestured somewhat explicitly. "—To masturbate in front of a mirror?"
"No," said John, and he meant it. "I mean," he said, after a moment more, "unless you want to, too." There were actually some possibilities there.
"Right, well," Rodney had apparently jumped onto the same train of thought as it whistled merrily and pervily along. "I mean, we wouldn't want to dismiss any ideas out of hand. I just—I just want to make sure—"
"I'd forgotten how hot you were," John admitted. "I hadn't really let myself notice before, and then when the alternate you came through the gate, I couldn't stop staring—"
Rodney was suddenly frowning.
"You don't have to be jealous of yourself," John said, hiding a smile. "Remember, I'm getting naked here with you."
"Oh, right. Of course. Except hey!" Rodney plucked at John's t-shirt. "You're not doing a very good job of it, are you? As always, I have to lead the way in everything: scientific discovery, space exploration, nudity—"
John chuckled as he pulled off his shirt. "Well, unfortunately it's not going to be anything—"
"—I haven't seen before, right. Except," he grabbed John by the waist and pushed him back onto the bed, "I've never seen your expression when I do this—"
He dragged his tongue roughly across John's nipple. John was sure he did make a face, and Rodney must have liked it, because he bent even more studiously to his task, licking and sucking the little bud of flesh into his mouth. He was straddling John, his hands pressed firmly against his chest. "Unless you want to save this, too," he asked, coming up briefly to take a breath.
"No," John said faintly. "No, this is good now..."
Rodney bent his head again, licking and biting at John's chest. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the lack of—
"This is fun even without breasts!" Rodney enthused. John tried to groan, but it came out closer to a moan. He ran his hands across Rodney's back, felt the incredible heat of him. Rodney was moving lower, nosing at his navel. "You sure," John gulped, "—ah—sure you don't still find me disgustingly furry?"
"No, the chest hair has grown on me." He paused and glanced up. "Literally."
John snorted and pushed Rodney over onto his back. Rodney didn't quite want to go, though, and they were too equally matched. They ended up on their sides, almost perfectly aligned. It once again stirred in John's chest, that feeling of terrifying closeness. They could melt together, join as one, lose themselves completely in each other. And yet each of them would always find the other. John had never been known like that before.
John opened his mouth—to say so, to say something—but he had already done so much talking, put more on the line than he could ever before remember doing. And anyway, now—they didn't need words.
They came together, kissing like they'd always known how to make the motion, bodies moving in perfect synchronicity. They paused only to work John's pants finally free of his body, and that was but the most minor hiccup—smooth brushes of arms against legs, arms against arms, then legs, newly freed, winding around each other. Their cocks drew roughly together, and suddenly John paused, for the first time looking at it head on, as it were.
"You're uncircumcised," John said, not fully able to keep the surprise out of his voice.
"Well, yeah. Oh," said Rodney. "You're not."
"Oh, so you're, usually—" John was still looking down, oddly entranced by this version of his dick that was not, in fact, identical.
"Uncut, yeah. But that," Rodney grinned, "unlike the gay, is not genetic."
John laughed against Rodney's hair, against the white arc of the scar on his forehead, against the rough stubble at his throat. "Oh, well." He pressed a kiss there, and there— "Vive le difference."
"I told you we'd come back," said the other him.
He was accompanied this time by an alt-Sheppard, an alt-Zelenka, and an alt-someone-in-medical-yellow-whose-name-Rodney-couldn't-place. The alt-Sheppard and his version exchanged tension-filled glances; then John inched closer and whispered in his ear. "The other me is giving me the stink-eye. It's creepy."
"You'd think you'd be used to doubles by now," Rodney whispered. He drew back a little; it was too distracting to have John's breath hot on his neck.
"'S not the same. This other guy's weird."
"Exactly!" John started to pull away and paste on a diplomatic smile, then darted back in again. "By the way, what's the woman's name? She seems familiar, but I can't quite remember."
"I dunno." Rodney realized that the hand he'd placed on the back of John's neck was far too close to a caress. He quickly let it drop. "I've always just called her Blonde Doctor."
Luckily, most of this peanut gallery discussion seemed to go ignored; Elizabeth was busy introducing herself to each of their visitors, even though they all (sort of) knew her. Only the other Sheppard's eyes seemed to stay consistently on them. Rodney shivered. Okay, it was sort of creepy.
He decided to smile at him, his own special Sheppard-grin, the one that he'd half sort of practiced and half adopted by osmosis, by living in the body and knowing the man. He let his lips fan out, eyes friendly and flirty and yet somehow still cold. The other Sheppard flinched. Or he didn't; it was hard to tell. But Rodney felt strangely satisfied.
He noticed that Elizabeth was shaking hands with Blonde Doctor and moved closer to see if he could catch her name. "...Never been to an alternate universe before!" she was saying. "I don't even go off-world much, so..." She had a nice smile. Plus, you know, blonde—though Rodney supposed he shouldn't be so drawn to that anymore. And he wasn't, really—it was more of an observation. Which like all good observations could lead to interesting experiments—maybe he should try setting her up with Carson? His versions, of course. They were both voodoo practitioners, after all, and maybe if Rodney got Beckett a date he'd stop being sore at Rodney for having snatched Laura out from under him. (Not literally, of course.)
Rodney was so distracted with his thoughts that he never did quite catch the blonde doctor's name. She looked kind of pale as she went off to meet with Carson—maybe a set-up wasn't such a good idea, after all.
Elizabeth and the two Sheppards mounted the stairs to do a general debriefing and intelligence swapping; John shot him a smile as he departed, and Rodney was once again grateful that this face was so much better at hiding a blush. Better enjoy it while I can, he thought, and tried to force down a feeling of panic.
His counterpart was confidently leading the way toward some part of the city that in Rodney's reality they hadn't even begun to think about exploring. "How much of the city have you covered?" he asked the alt-Radek, who was, surprise surprise, staring at him.
"Ah, er." Radek deliberately pushed his glasses up his nose. "Nearly seventy-five percent, I should think." He looked to his McKay for confirmation.
"Seventy-three," he countered. He waved a hand in front of a transporter sensor. It opened, but begrudgingly. "Uh..." Rodney said, not quite a warning.
The other McKay ignored him, anyway. He stepped inside and pressed the screen. Nothing happened. He pressed it again. Still nothing. "Oh, come on!"
"It's not you," said Rodney, with only the slightest sigh—he was far too used to this. "We've been having some problems since—well, since the beginning really. There aren't enough gene carriers, and apparently, the city can sense it." He stepped into the transporter beside his counterpart and pulled loose a small control panel. "It makes it cranky."
"But the transporters do not require the ATA gene to operate," said Radek. He was watching Rodney swap wires with what seemed like an undue amount of interest.
"No," Rodney said, "not if there are plenty of ATA positive people using them, too. But if they don't get a gene carrier every certain number of trips—it doesn't seem to be an exact number; Atlantis is frustratingly illogical and capricious—they stop working until one of us comes in and reactivates it."
"Great, more excuses for people to wake me—you—up at three o'clock in the morning," the other McKay said. He'd been listening to the rest of the explanation with arms folded, but apparently interrupted sleep cycles was something to which he could relate.
"You've really never had this problem?" Rodney asked, stepping back so the other could enter their desired destination.
"No," McKay said.
"There was time all the transporters started pumping horrible music," Radek pointed out.
"I'm going to kill Sheppard for that," McKay fumed.
Rodney looked between them, confused.
"It was a prank," Radek explained. "The Colonel managed to get a whole bunch of iPods and some Celine Dion CDs..."
"Those were his!" McKay hissed. "You were supposed to help me spread the rumor that those were his!"
At least one of them probably was his, Rodney reflected. He didn't mention it, though. It was odd, but he really did feel more loyalty to John than to his other self.
It really should have taken him way less time to figure out John was gay, though.
The transporter had opened on an unfamiliar hallway, ill-lit and somewhat damp smelling. Rodney produced a flashlight and watched the weak beam illuminate a few pieces of abandoned equipment in the echoing, empty hall. "So what percentage of your population has the gene?" he asked. He was sure that this was the kind of information Elizabeth and John were covering, and Carson and Blonde Doctor were working to adjust even as they spoke, but he had plenty of his own questions, thank you very much. "We've calculated that even an increase to ten percent would greatly improve the overall functioning of the..." He caught Radek staring at him, his glasses pale reflective discs in the dim light. "What?"
"We have close to fifty percent who have accepted the gene."
"Forty-seven," McKay snapped. He turned and glanced at Rodney, his flashlight beam veering far too close to Rodney's eyes. "Who do you have to fly the jumpers, then?"
"Everyone with the gene's been trained." Rodney started to poke at something squelchy with his shoe, then realized this was perhaps a bad idea. "Sheppard leads a squad, and I took over Sergeant Markham's squad when he, well." This part was always uncomfortable. "Died."
The others reacted, but not as Rodney had expected. "You lead a squad?"
"I like flying!" Rodney hated that he should be made to feel defensive.
The beam moved up and down his body again. "Huh. You would."
"There's a lot of physics involved, you know," Rodney continued. "It's very...mentally stimulating." This was of course true, but Rodney still felt like a hypocrite as he said it. Because that wasn't what he loved about flight. It spoke not at all of how incredible it felt to be airborne, to feel gravity lose its grip on you. That was dizzying like physics, but not the intellectual part of the science. It was the part that even this alternate version of himself would have to admit was there: mental freefall, pure instinct.
Or maybe not. Maybe Rodney misremembered. Maybe he didn't think like that at all—he'd been without artistry, remember? A cold, brassy genius, without leaps, without flight. Maybe that was all John, and he was about to...give it away.
"Are you sure this device is down here?" he said suddenly. "Maybe it only exists in your universe and we're wandering around in the Land of Smells for nothing."
Even in the dark, Rodney could see his counterpart rolling his eyes. "I think we've established a pretty clear point of diversion between our two universes, and it has no effect on what the Ancients did or did not leave for us to find. Besides." He straightened his shoulders. "We're here."
"Let's break for lunch," Elizabeth announced.
John had mixed feelings about this suggestion. On the one hand, he was finding it exhausting listening to the other him list all the threats his version of the city had faced. Sure, it was nice to know that they had managed to avoid certain disasters while they stumbled around here in the dark (he had turned into a bug? Jesus), but a lot of problems were still out there. (Replicators? Fuck. Weren't the Wraith and the Genii enough?)
Also, he wouldn't mind a sandwich.
However, the idea of having to sit with his other self and make pleasant conversation did not, John suspected, appeal to either of them. Elizabeth was showing his counterpart to the door, saying, "You can discover which version of Atlantis has better food," and the other him was smiling and nodding at this suggestion, despite what, to John, was a flashing 'LIAR' sign in the middle of his forehead. Worse, as Elizabeth started to lead them down to the mess, Chuck appeared with an urgent issue of some sort, and the next thing he knew it was all "I'll meet you down there," and John 1 and John 2 were left eying each other awkwardly at the top of the stairs.
He was John 1, for the record.
"So," said the other.
"Turkey sandwich?" John suggested.
It worked as a peace offering, for at least as long as it took for them to get their trays and heap them with food. The other Sheppard led the way to an empty table and sat down, casting discreet glances around the mess. No one was really looking at them; they were all used to seeing two identical dark-haired men sharing a meal. In fact, unless they looked closer, they'd probably all continue to assume that John's luncheon companion was Rodney. After all, they ate together almost every day.
"Where are Teyla and Ronon?" the other Sheppard asked, tearing off a bite. "Maybe they'd like to join us?"
"Teyla usually eats lunch with Doctor Hudson." John took a hefty bite of his own. "Ronon's probably off somewhere intimidating Marines." He ventured a glance. "I can probably take you to meet them later." He chewed. "You curious how they're different?"
Oh, he was trying for intimidatingly enigmatic.
"Right," John said. He lifted an eyebrow.
"So, is this weird for you?" he asked, after a moment. "The old mirror dance?"
The other Sheppard was giving him a "huh?" look.
"Double, double, toil and trouble," he pressed. Nothing. "Cousins, identical cousins?"
Sheppard shrugged. "We've had visitors from alternate universes before. There was the old Elizabeth," John nodded, "and of course," said Sheppard, rolling his eyes a little, "Rod."
Now it was John's turn to go, "Huh?"
"The leather McKay?" John's eyes bulged. "Uh, not like that," Sheppard hastily clarified. "The cool and personable Rodney that Jeannie accidentally brought over?"
Elizabeth's briefing hadn't gotten anywhere near the good stuff, it seemed. John suddenly had a thousand questions. He went for flip first. "You say he was cool—so he looked like us?"
Sheppard almost seemed to shudder at that, but it was so quick it was hard to tell. "No, he looked like Rodney. But he had a mean golf swing."
"Oh, well that's what really matters," said John. He picked at a piece of tomato. "Who's Jeannie?"
An eyebrow went up. "Rodney's sister."
"Rodney's sister Jeannie? How did she—was she here?"
Sheppard nodded. "She wrote a physics theorem and SGC found out about it. Rodney went to Canada and convinced her to come help implement it." A pause. "I'm guessing that didn't happen here."
John shook his head. "No. No, here Rodney's not really allowed to go to Earth very much." He looked down. "Officially, he's MIA."
"That's fucked up."
As much as he hated to, John was forced to agree. "Yeah." He couldn't help adding: "Though that bug thing sounded pretty fucked up, too."
"You're telling me?" said the other Sheppard. He chewed, somewhat morosely. "I can't believe you managed to avoid that."
John had already worked this through; Rodney would be proud. "Our Carson lost his confidence or felt guilty or who knows what after what happened to Rodney; he actually gave this whole embarrassing, weepy speech about how things had changed and he was going to focus less on experimental stuff and more on—and I quote—'being the best damn doctor I can be for you fine, brave people.' So there was no retrovirus when we encountered that little Wraith girl, and as immensely disturbing as she was, we left without really doing anything about her." He searched Sheppard's blank expression. "I've often thought that was maybe not such a great idea."
Sheppard didn't seem to care one way or another; John was not surprised by his shift in focus. "So Carson...he's still sticking mostly to the medical side of things?"
"Yeah, he's doing great. Rodney thwarted his one stab at dating, but other than that." John kept his gaze steady. "He's dead in your universe, isn't he."
John took a deep breath. "And Elizabeth?"
"No," Sheppard said, and John couldn't hide how immensely relieved he was by that answer. "But she's badly injured. When we left she was still in a coma."
"I guess there are worse things than the transporters breaking down all the time," John said levelly.
"It's been tough," Sheppard agreed, and John was pretty sure that was all he was going to get out of him. But Sheppard surprised him: "I'm sure you know what it's like. We've all lost friends, Rodney lost his best friend..." He trailed off, perhaps noticing John's puzzled expression. "What?"
"His best friend?" John repeated. He thought petulantly, But I'm his best friend.
"Carson." The identical gaze was making him uncomfortable again; so strange—it was never like that any more with Rodney. He'd been able to look into Rodney's eyes, see what his own face looked like when he came. And it had been wonderful.
This was probably not the best time to think about that, though. John shifted uncomfortably in his chair and returned to the topic at hand. "Carson's his best friend?" He hoped he didn't sound too disrespectful to the alternatively dead. "Did he tell you that? Really?"
The other Sheppard looked shifty. "Who else would it be?"
John shrugged. "Dunno. Radek, maybe."
Sheppard just looked at him. He had a bad feeling that the flashing 'LIAR' sign was currently making an appearance on his side of the table.
The other him, the him that felt less like his counterpart or mirror image than Rodney did, leaned back in his chair, draping his arm casually over the back. "So the two of you are close," he said, tilting his chin.
"Yeah, well, we're teammates. You get used to watching each other's backs. You know what it's like."
"Not the sharing a face part."
John almost said, That's nothing. Entirely superficial. But maybe Rodney had rubbed off on him, too, or maybe he wasn't quite that good of a liar.
He leaned back, too. "Didn't you used to want a brother?"
It felt a little pervy now, to phrase it like that, but it was the words which were inaccurate and imprecise, not his feelings. John remembered, as a boy, reading stories about other boys, lucky boys who were best friends, who cut their palms and joined the bloody centers together. He'd wanted it so badly. This man across the table—he was him. He had to have wanted it, too.
But he shook his head and said, "No."
He wasn't lying this time, or he didn't think it was a lie. John realized that three years ago—less—he would have given the same answer, and meant it just as much.
He shrugged. "These are the quirks of interdimensional travel, I suppose." He took another bite of sandwich.
It wasn't long before they—very carefully, Radek and the other McKay walking around practically on tip toe—managed to ascertain that the Ancient machine could be made to work. Rodney greeted this news with mixed feelings. He tried to keep them all under wraps. "Okay," he said, "let's go check in with Carson and, um." At the last second he managed not to say "Blonde Doctor."
"Doctor Keller," Radek supplied.
Rodney's counterpart didn't say anything. The expression on his face was worrying.
The transporter didn't give them any trouble on the way over to the infirmary. They entered—Rodney leading, Radek on his heels, and the other McKay trailing nervously behind—to find Carson reviewing some files on a sparkly pink USB drive while slapping his forehead and going through other motions of consternation. "Why didn't I think of that?"
"Well, you did," said Blonde Doctor Keller. She appeared to have also caught his counterpart's twitchiness disease. "They're your notes."
"Oh." He appeared to scroll back. "Very clever of me!" He glanced back at Keller. "You should tell me I'm impressed!"
"Sure." Keller looked down at her shoes.
The unease in the room was palpable; Rodney decided to go with his usual strategy and completely ignore it. "So, Carson. Been shown the error of your ways yet?"
Carson blushed. "Really, Rodney, if you'll look at this—I was very close?"
"And yet so far," he said, sarcastically, spreading his arms to give everyone the full effect. His other self shrank away and appeared to try to hide behind Radek. That never worked.
"So, this is good, though," Carson was back to nodding at his counterpart's brilliant work. "I think I can whip some of this up and start testing it within a few days." The old gleam was back in his eye.
Rodney snorted. "You should start with Radek—our Radek. He's been second in line for three years."
Alt-Radek was suddenly frowning. "It still will not work for him."
"Oh. Sorry," said Carson.
"It's not your fault!" said Radek quickly.
"Okay, Cadman then." Rodney grinned wickedly. "If there are still side effects, I don't think she'll even be that pissed."
Carson seemed to like this idea. "I'd be honored to ask her—er, yes," he said, jerking himself back on track. "There's another important thing we still have to do. Rodney, I need a sample of your blood."
He was clearly talking to the other Rodney, the one who appeared to be fascinated with their courtesy screens. "That's interesting. Are these a different color in our universe? What do you think, Radek, are ours a different color?"
"No," said Radek.
"Rodney?" said Carson, questioningly.
"Right, okay." The other him was still looking miserably at the floor. "Um. I'd like some privacy when I have my blood drawn, okay?"
Keller nodded and came to stand by Radek. Carson looked confused, but he turned and led the alternate Rodney to a private area at the back of the infirmary.
They were gone a while. After a few minutes—already more time than should have passed even if Carson was suddenly having a really hard time finding a vein (and actually, he was always pretty quick and surprisingly gentle)—Rodney turned to Radek and Keller. "So," he said.
But he didn't need to ask the rest of the question. He knew.
The other Rodney wanted to use the device on his Rodney right away, but John's Rodney deferred, saying that he needed time to digest. "What is there to digest?" the other Rodney demanded. "Don't you want to get back to normal?"
"Yeah," said his Rodney casually, "but I drank about twelve glasses of orange juice this morning as a little farewell, and I need to give it time to clear my system."
The other Rodney gagged.
"What?" John tried not to collapse entirely against his Rodney's side, he was laughing so hard. "It's actually very refreshing! I wish you could try it!"
The other Rodney stomped away, muttering something that sounded like "traitor."
His Rodney stopped smiling almost as soon as he was gone. "I was just kind of mean to myself," he said, frowning now. "I feel weird."
John led him over to an alcove that had a little bench in it. They sat down. "That's all those crazy Sheppard hormones. You'll feel better once you're yourself again."
Rodney looked at him. God, he would—he would miss that head-on glance; their eyes perfectly level and everything even. But they'd be trading it in for something so much better. He was convinced of it; why couldn't he make Rodney see?
"Are you sure?" Rodney asked. "I mean, what if I'm not the same? You know," he almost swallowed the word, "inside. Being—being you, it's made me feel—brave and heroic and athletic and confident and...and what if I'm not? On my own?"
"I don't believe that," John said, and he meant it, truly. "The mission reports I've been going over with Elizabeth and the creepy me prove otherwise, and so does everything I've experienced over the last three years. I've seen you be heroic and brave and confident countless times—remember when you saved us from that race of giant cuttlefish?"
"That only ended up being left to me because Teyla got ink in her eyes and for some bizarre reason, you and Ronon share the same weird phobia about cephalopods!"
John shuddered. "They can open jars with their suckers!" he said, with the air of someone who's had to make this argument countless times. "What's next? That's right, our skulls!"
Rodney rolled his eyes. John knew he shouldn't have brought up the Cuttlefish Incident. "But anyway," he said, "you're proving my point! You were totally brave then, and I was," he shrugged, "let's be honest, mostly hiding behind an anemone. As for the athletic thing," he continued, straightening up a bit, "we can totally work on that."
Rodney gave him a smack. "You better not be lying about finding me hot."
John glanced around. "Do you want me to go find the other you and prove it?"
"No!" Rodney snapped. Then more softly, "No. Show me again." He brushed a thumb across the back of John's neck.
Luckily, when Cadman passed by, they'd stopped kissing and were just spending a moment holding each other, John breathing in the scent that he thought for sure was uniquely Rodney, rubbing circles into his back. "What?" snapped Rodney, when the heavy boots and blonde hair started to backtrack. "We're expressing a little brotherly love, do you mind?"
Cadman made a mock grab for her heart. "Don't make me miss you, McKay!"
"Oh, Rodney," said John, chuckling into his shoulder, "Please don't ever change."
"What is this, a spectator sport?"
"Rodney, you've not suddenly become modest, have you?" Laura had wedged herself into the corner next to Elizabeth, creepy!John, Carson, Keller, and the group of medics who were there "just in case." She was totally stalking him.
"I'm getting my DNA rearranged, does the entire city need to be here to see this?" he demanded. "Elizabeth!"
She appeared to make some half-hearted efforts to shoo away some of the people (including Laura—ha!) who were purely gawkers. Rodney wished their alternate universe visitors could also be made to leave, but they were the reason this was happening, not to mention the fact that the alt- Rodney and Radek were the only ones who really knew how to work the device, and Rodney wasn't even fully convinced of that. He took a deep breath and started toward the platform they had indicated. "You're sure this will work?" he asked them.
"Ninety-nine percent sure," said the other him.
"Ah, ninety-seven," countered Radek. "The chances of you being reduced to a puddle of goo are very very small."
"What?" They hadn't mentioned that!
"On the other hand," said his counterpart, "there's also a small chance you might develop superpowers?"
"Rodney." He turned: it was his John, but he'd known that even without looking. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to."
It was permission, honestly given, honestly meant. Things could stay exactly as they were, and they had been good. They might even continue to be better, he thought, remembering John's kisses, the slide of their bodies together, the look of promise in John's eyes. It would be a little weird, but John would get used to it—would like it.
But it wouldn't be what he wanted.
And would it really be what Rodney wanted—forever? There had been good things, shockingly, surprisingly, about being John's shadow. It had at times made him feel weirdly powerful—invulnerable, as the personal shield never could—because he'd had John there with him behind every move. He'd never felt closer to another person. He didn't want to lose that.
But he didn't want to lose himself, either. Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay, PhD PhD PhD—he deserved his own place in the world. He deserved a passport and ID cards with his own name and face on them, and free rein of his own planet. He deserved that Nobel Prize.
He wanted to see his sister again.
And he wanted John, for real, not as some fluke of medical mishaps and semi-masturbatory delight. He wanted whatever this thing was between them to be for keeps.
"No," he said, staring forward again. "I'm doing it. After all," he looked to the room at large, "it would be wrong to deny the world the full benefits of having me in it."
"No different, I told you," he heard alt-Radek whisper to his Rodney.
"All right," that Rodney said, "on three."
He closed his eyes.
"See you on the other side," called John.
Even through his closed eyelids, he felt the world become suffused with light.
John wanted to look away, but he forced himself to watch as a snaking beam of white light wound itself around Rodney's body. After that he expected—he wasn't sure, but something dramatic and special effects-y: the Rodney that looked like him morphing into one who looked like the Rodney from the alternative universe with a big, explosive flash of light—like the Doctor regenerating or something. But instead there was barely even a shimmer. John felt sure he must have blinked, because one minute Rodney was there—as he'd known him, for three years the way he'd known him (and worked with him, and snarked with him, and fought with him, and fucked him)—and the next he was gone, and there was a sandy-haired man with broad shoulders and bright blue eyes and a wide slanting mouth pressed into a frown.
The light vanished and the man stumbled back, mouth opening in surprise. Everyone watched, silent. The man looked down at his hands, staring at his pale, knobby-jointed fingers, then pressing them to his chest and finally his face. "I guess it worked," he said, and then started at the sound of his own voice.
"I told you it would work," the other Rodney said, and those blue eyes flicked to him, staring. John could read the expression clearly: Is that really me now? Is that me?
Then his eyes swiveled and found John.
Not me. Not alike. It hurt more than John had anticipated, not having that all of a sudden: no reassuring anchor, no face he could find and know himself in at a mere moment's notice. It hurt, but not like he realized it must be hurting Rodney. He looked lost.
Quickly he pushed through the crowd. "I think he needs some time," he said loudly, over everyone else and their wall of questions: "How do you feel?" "Glad to have you back." "Pants a little tight, McKay?"
"And some space," John added in his most authoritative Lieutenant Colonel voice. He took Rodney by the arm, trying not to notice how he shivered a little at the touch, and pushed and glared his way back through the crowd.
Carson was waiting at the edge. "I really need to look him over, Colonel."
John hesitated. If it was a question of Rodney's health...
"Oh for god's sake, I'm fine!" Rodney snapped. "I'm not a puddle of goo, I'm me, and I'd really like a few moments to enjoy that before you stick some more needles in my arm and turn me into Zelenka next!" Carson backed up a step. "I'll come by later, okay?" Rodney relented, and with that they pushed the rest of the way out into the hall, moving as quickly as they could around bits of discarded Ancient office furniture until they made it to the transporter.
Much to John's disappointment, Rodney broke away from him as soon as the doors closed. "Thank you, Colonel," he said stiffly, looking down.
John's heart lurched. "Rodney—" He tried to close the distance, to reach for Rodney's arm again, but he shook him away.
"I do need some time," Rodney mumbled. "I don't even... Just give me some time."
The transporter doors opened and John watched him walk, head down, toward his own room.
John took a breath and forced himself to stay calm, his face to stay blank. Even then he needed a moment to collect himself. Luckily, his own quarters were also nearby. He went through the door, then stopped, looking around. He saw his golf magazines and Johnny Cash poster, the surfboard he never really used, the guitar he didn't really know how to play, the copy of War and Peace he had still never really read. Who was this person? For a moment he thought he'd known, seen it reflected there in Rodney's eyes.
He ran a hand through his hair, over his chin. He stood.
The door swished open behind him. He had barely turned before Rodney was there, wrapping his arms around him, pulling him down into a kiss. "Oh, who am I kidding?" John clutched at his back. "You're the only person I need time with, I'd much rather be with you than with myself."
John was afraid to blink, almost afraid to move, but still he found the strength to lean forward and kiss that beautiful, slanting corner of Rodney's mouth. "Whatever you want."
"You," Rodney breathed, "I want you."
He pulled back and looked at John with those extraordinary eyes. "Do you still want me?"
"Yes," said John, backing him toward the wall with shaking hands. "I want your lips." He kissed them. "I want your mouth." He slid inside. "I want your tongue and your teeth," he just managed to say. "God, you taste incredible, Rodney."
"Well, I'm brand new," Rodney told him. He smiled impishly and that amazing mouth quirked up. John couldn't stop staring at him. His whole body was trembling. He couldn't believe that all this time he'd had this person, had Rodney, and yet he didn't know his looks, his smiles, his eyerolls, his laughs. But he'd get to learn them. Now he'd get to—
"Don't stop," Rodney said.
John grinned. "Never," he said, and kissed along the line of Rodney's chin (this was right—he should have a proud, stubborn chin) and down his throat. "Because I want your chin, Rodney, I want the hollow of your throat right here. I want your pulse point, your collar bone..." Rodney was still wearing one of his old shirts, and it was absurdly, obscenely tight. John could see the outline of Rodney's nipples through the taut black fabric; he ran his thumbs over them and got to see Rodney shiver and shudder and shake. "I want your nipples, Rodney." John couldn't stop smiling. "I want your chest and your belly—" It was a perfect, soft little rise; John bared his teeth and nipped. Then he slid the rest of the way down to his knees. "I want your thighs. I want your cock, Rodney." It was hard, John noticed with pleasure, straining against the tight fabric of Rodney's pants. "And god," John said, reaching around behind, pushing his face against Rodney's crotch and squeezing— "Do I want your ass."
Rodney bucked, the erect ridge of his cock rubbing against John's nose. "You can have it," he gasped.
John glanced up. "Really?"
"Yes, yes—anything. I want to be with you, I want you in me—"
He really meant it. John almost fell over.
"Okay," John said, pulling himself back up Rodney's body. His cock was so hard he wasn't surprised it was tripping him up. "Let's just take this slow..."
"Slow?" Rodney yelped.
John laughed, kissing Rodney again, tugging at his wrist. "Trust me."
As fucking fantastic as it was to be with Rodney, to really be with Rodney, John also couldn't get over how good it was to be with a man again. He spent so much time not thinking about it or trying not to think about it that his knees felt like rubber when just the thought of what was coming—what had come before, and what could potentially come again and again—entered his head. He helped Rodney tug off his shirt, then stared at those incredible arms, that fair thatch of hair on his chest, the heady male scent of him—similar but different than when he had still smelled somewhat like John. Suddenly he wanted Rodney's weight on him, to feel Rodney's body pinning him down, his clever, calloused fingers digging into John's hips. That was how he'd know, how he always knew. But that could wait. He wanted to give Rodney something, too. And he wanted Rodney's cock in his mouth.
He pushed Rodney down on the bed, heard him gasp at just the touch of the sheets on his bare skin. He waggled his fingers. "My skin's still tingly," he said. Then he grinned. "Or maybe that's you."
"Oh, it's totally me," said John, nodding seriously as he tugged off Rodney's boots. He stripped off his own clothes favoring efficiency over any kind of sexy display, then crawled back up the bed and made equally quick, efficient work of Rodney's pants.
Rodney's cock was straining at his boxers; John bent his head as he drew the cloth slowly over the sensitive skin, as he watched it spring free. He made an appreciative noise at the back of his throat. Rodney was propped up on his elbows, too, watching this touching reunion with an old friend. "See, I told you," he said. "Bigger, longer, and uncut." John snorted and gave Rodney's thigh a pinch, but he also leaned close and licked along the vein from the base of his dick up to the tip.
The smug expression vanished from Rodney's face. "Like that?" John asked.
He let his head fall pack, panting. "No, I'm the only man in the world who hates blowjobs." When John waited a moment to respond, Rodney peeked back up. "I was only kidding!"
John grinned and caressed Rodney's thigh. "That's a relief, because I really like sucking cock." He gave Rodney his most innocent, puppy-eyed look. "You wouldn't deny me, right?" Then he took Rodney's dick in his hand and slowly fed it into his mouth.
He could feel Rodney's eyes on him, watching in wonderment. John sucked slowly, settling into a nice, leisurely rhythm. He kept stroking Rodney's warm thighs, feeling every shuddering movement pulse through his body. Rodney was making little choked, amazed sounds and John loved that, knowing he was doing that. He loved the slight ache in his jaw and the weight on his tongue, and how hot was it, how incredibly fucking hot to have an untouched cock in his mouth—in a way it really never had been touched, not even by Rodney; it was all brand new and his his his—
He realized he was rubbing himself off against the mattress and made himself stop; he still wanted—Rodney's beautiful ass, and it was right there, and he lifted up Rodney's thigh, sliding it along his arm until he was cupping a hand over Rodney's asscheek, teasing along his crack, squeezing; and Rodney bucked against his bicep and came.
John swallowed him down, licking his lips, then slid up Rodney's body, marveling at the splay of his dark lashes against his cheeks. His eyes fluttered open and Rodney stared at him, breathed his name: "John."
John said suddenly, impulsively, "Wanna taste?"
Rodney answered by pulling his head down, kissing him soundly, licking up salt and come and making John shudder. "That's you," he said breathlessly. Then, a momentary worry: "Is this too weird?"
"I want you to teach me to do that," Rodney said, grinning again. "I would try now, only the other me is an idiot and screwed up somehow; I don't think this body has any actual bones in it."
"That just a minute ago was a pretty good bone," John said. "The most important one, really."
A look of what appeared to be equal parts confusion, pity, and affection crossed Rodney's face. "You are such a dork."
"But you love me," John said, and in the seconds that followed his heart thudded in his chest and thunder roared in his ears and Rodney said, "Of course I do. Idiot."
Rodney took a deep breath. "And I want you to fuck me," he said.
John was looking at him with something very near awe; he couldn't believe it, didn't feel deserving of it, but he knew that face. He knew John. He knew his shaky intake of breath, and even the line and weight of his cock hot and insistent against Rodney's thigh. "What can I say? I miss having a piece of you inside of me already."
"And I'm a dork?" said John. Then he bowed his head. "Rodney, Rodney, you know—" And when he couldn't find the words, he apparently became convinced he could locate them in Rodney's mouth. Rodney found himself being kissed so fiercely he practically lifted off the bed, his spine arching as if drawn by an invisible hand. He felt like he'd been shocked with a defibrillator, his body shaken and reformed and undone. Above him, John's eyes were dark and dangerous, and Rodney could read them as easily as his own face.
When John drew back he was shaking. "I know," said Rodney, stroking his head. It really was beautiful hair, when it wasn't attached to him. "Now please," he said, "do me already."
John chuckled and kissed his way back down Rodney's chest, over his spent cock. He parted Rodney's thighs and blew on him, breathed on him. Rodney shivered. Secretly, he was still a little bit unsure about this. He wanted to pull John to him as tightly as possible, and well, this seemed like the way to do it. But it was still his ass, and another guy's dick.
"This is going to be good, right?" he asked John, who had torn himself away—seemingly reluctantly—to dig in his bedside drawer. "I mean, you like it, right? Give me—give me some empirical evidence, some examples from your own research—"
"You want me to tell you about other times I've been fucked?" He was kneeling between Rodney's legs, holding a container of slick. He looked tall and amazing, and for the first time—even more than when they'd been making out, than when they'd come stickily across each other's bellies, than when John had been sucking Rodney's cock—for the first time, Rodney thought, Whoa, John's gay. His head was suddenly filled with images of John sucking and fucking other men, of him being sucked and fucked. He swallowed, sharply: turned on, jealous; but mostly, privately, a little hurt to have thought he knew John so well and to then discover John had kept this from him.
"Uh," he said, "not if—as long as the other guy isn't anyone I know."
John chuckled without humor. "Trust me, it wouldn't be anyone you know."
He started stroking Rodney's thighs again, clearly willing him to relax. Rodney found he calmed surprisingly quickly: his skin felt tingly and new, like he'd never been touched before, and every touch was sending shocks of pleasure shooting up his spine. John's long, graceful fingers circled lower, but Rodney wasn't bracing himself for the touch that really mattered. He guessed he really did want to make this happen.
"Well," John was saying, "remember Teer?"
Rodney did tense a little at that. "Oh my god, she was a dude?"
John made an odd face. "No! But I did have sex with her, just like I told you."
Rodney wasn't sure where this was going—John was attempting to reassert some sort of vague claim on heterosexuality? Now? Why?—but he did remember that night. After they'd gotten John back from the cloister and returned to Atlantis, he'd spent a long time just sitting in John's room, talking. They'd talked about everything and nothing, and then they'd just kept talking. When they got tired they'd laid down on the bed and talked some more, whispering like little boys in the dark. And then after a while they'd stopped talking, and just lain there together, staring into each other's eyes. Rodney had thought, So this is what it's like to be a twin. And when they'd woken up the next morning, wrapped in each other's arms, it hadn't even seemed that weird.
He really should have figured this out a lot sooner. He was supposed to be smart.
He put on an air of crankiness, which was a little difficult when the person you were trying to be cranky at was gently massaging your ass and thighs. "If this story ends with Teer letting you take her from behind, I am not impressed; I've done that too, and while it's very nice, it doesn't actually answer my question."
John's eyelashes fluttered. "No, that's not my point. My point is, that happened once. The rest of the time," he rubbed the lube on his fingers, "the rest of the time I was with this guy. I caught him looking at me at the fountain and I thought—at the time I thought I was never going to see you again, I thought I wasn't ever going to see any of you ever again. So I let myself—for the first time in this galaxy I let myself. We would go out to the orchard, Allan and I, and I would let him fuck me—" Rodney felt John push a finger against his hole. He tensed but John's voice was like a gentle ocean, rocking over him, smooth as the undulating movements of John's finger against his inner skin. "Shh, you're good, relax, you're good—" He pushed inside, past the tight ring of muscle, shiny and brand new. "I would let him fuck me, Rodney," he moved the finger in and out, this strange invading presence, and Rodney couldn't tell if he wanted to push him out or pull him deeper inside— "I let him fuck me while I thought about how much I missed you, you were all I thought about, Rodney—" Another one, oh god, and already he felt very full, but there was something about John's fingers on the inside of his body, stretching him slowly, making him grow and learn— "God, you're amazing, Rodney—" He was making noises, high whimpery noises, and John pushed deeper, scraping across something deep inside—
"I don't know why I didn't figure it out sooner," John said.
"Oh god, me too, I was just thinking that," Rodney said, though as far as he could tell not a single word came out coherent. He wasn't sure if John was taking him or if he was swallowing John up. "John, John, please—"
John leaned forward and kissed him, his free hand rubbing along his leg muscles, maneuvering Rodney's thigh, pulling his ankle up over John's shoulder. I am surprisingly flexible! he thought, and then he felt the blunt head of John's dick pushing against his body, and he knew this, he did, because he just opened himself and let John all the way in.
"I missed you," Rodney said, breathing John in, taking him, "I missed you, too, and it's been—it was only minutes for me, hours—"
"I'm here," John said, "you've got me, I've got you, we're here—"
Rodney slid his leg down, tightening them both around John's waist, pulling him into shorter, sharper strokes. John lowered his head and Rodney put his tongue in his mouth, fucking into him with his tongue while John fucked into his ass, kissing him and stroking his hair, the two of them, held together like a collapsing circle. Rodney's body hummed and sang and surged around John, coming to pieces, coming—together and separate, two halves of one whole.
Rodney felt a change, like something blossoming under his skin, but this time when it finished he was still himself—he was himself again; and John was with him; and they were together.
They lay beside each other when they were done. Their gazes were no longer exactly even, but they could still stare into each other's eyes, now blue and hazel instead of one shifting shade of green and brown. They were no longer precisely aligned head to toe, but—
"Dammit!" Rodney said suddenly. "I knew there was something else we forgot to do before I changed back. We should have 69'd! We were exactly the same height!"
John laughed. He looked more sated and happy than Rodney had ever seen him, his eyes clear of regret. "It'll still work, though. We'll make it work. Watch." Then he lightly tickled his toes across Rodney's before tilting Rodney's chin up ever so slightly and pulling him into a kiss. "See?" He smiled against Rodney's shoulder. "It's perfect."
Rodney was struggling so John slowed his pace and fell easily into step beside him. He glanced up, face shiny with sweat. "Oh god, this is horrible. Why am I torturing myself?"
"Yeah, it was probably not the best idea to start your retraining by running with Ronon," John admitted.
As if to prove his point, Ronon circled back, his thumb and forefinger held to his forehead in a big mocking L. Rodney found enough breath (and actually exhibited a burst of speed) in order to yell, "Hey! Did Laura teach you that? I'm gonna—"
Ronon just laughed and sped away, leaving them to eat his metaphorical dust. "Teyla's gonna kick your ass later!" Rodney called. "And we'll be there! Cheering! Argh," he added, once Ronon had well and truly roadrunner'd off, "I can't believe I used to do this regularly."
"You liked it!"
"That was different. You were good at it. I don't like anything I'm not instantly good at."
"If you practice, you'll get good."
"Yeah, right." But John noticed he wasn't stopping.
Eventually, John was starting to get tired, too, and he used the fact that Rodney looked like he was about to pass out to slow them down, then walk them over to a bench. For once Rodney allowed himself to be led, although the second they sat down he was snatching the water bottle out of John's hand. "Give me that."
John leaned impulsively sideways and sniffed at his neck. Rodney started back. "What are you doing? I smell sweaty and gross!"
"You smell like sex," said John, smiling dreamily.
"You are truly bizarre."
But you love me, John thought. He was so close to happy it was terrifying.
He turned to look at Rodney, who was slurping at the water bottle in a way John found very distracting. "So how are you doing?" he asked.
"My lungs are on fire!" Rodney croaked. "Somebody napalmed my lungs!"
"No," John shifted closer, "I mean, you know. In general."
"Oh." His voice was suddenly back to normal. "Well, I've been, I mean..." He stopped. "I don't feel that different, actually," he said in a small voice. "I feel like me." Then he turned on John. "Except for when you make me go running!"
John held up his hands in mock defense. "It was your idea!"
"You, you encouraged me!"
"That's an older brother's job," said John, nodding seriously.
Rodney shook his head and gestured at him with the water bottle. "You? Are disturbing and wrong. I'm not sure it's safe for me to take you to meet my sister."
This was the first John had heard of this. "When are you going to go?"
"As soon as I hear back from her. If I hear back from her." He poked at the floor with the tip of his shoe. "But the other Rodney, before he went back, he told me he was able to patch things up with her, and if he could do it..."
"Yes, he didn't have the wisdom of my, um."
"It's really too bad the transfer didn't work both ways," Rodney said dryly.
"I'm sure I would have made a fabulous scientist," John agreed. He held out his hands, setting the scene in the air. "Doctor John Marion Sheppard, PhD PhD PhD."
This was perfectly timed to coincide with Rodney taking another sip of water. John was pleased to see that it sprayed impressively far.
"Your middle name is—"
"My mom liked Westerns." He knocked Rodney's shoulder lightly with his own.
"You can't just dump these things on me, you're going to give me a heart attack!" Rodney said. He gave John a gentle knock back. "Though I appreciate you telling me."
John smiled. "I was happy to share."